American Players Theatre’s American Tragedy

The Spring Green theater stages Arthur Miller’s classic play, “Death of a Salesman.”

Limitations can yield opportunities.

That may sounds like a business mantra of Willy Loman’s era. Or at least something Willie told himself, or heard from superiors and associates who knew of his struggles. But the phrase also applies to American Players Theatre’s searing production of Arthur Miller’s 1949 classic play, Death of a Salesman.

Tracy Michelle Arnold and Brian Mani Photo by Liz Lauren
Tracy Michelle Arnold and Brian Mani
Photo by Liz Lauren

Jo Mielziner’s set for the original Broadway production of Salesman was a blend of kitchen sink realism and soaring stage poetry—the plain middle-class rooms of the Loman homestead engulfed in a soaring abstract cityscape. For APT, designer Michael Ganio lets the room itself fade into abstraction, washing everything in a generic green-gray. There are few moody colors in Michael A. Peterson’s lighting design. Other than the occasional evocation of the backyard garden, there’s just cool, white light—the better to see Miller’s look at The American Way.

The simplicity, of course, assures that the characters and story are in the foreground, as they should be. And director Ken Albers draws vivid and poignant performances from his company. John Pribyl is the imposing and inscrutable Ben, Willy’s brother who appears to remind the tormented salesman about his life choices. Johnny Lee Davenport and Sylvester Little, Jr. are the father and son neighbors who offer a countervision of an American Dream that is actually realized.

Of course, the family is the centerpiece of this drama, and the APT cast powerfully evokes the psychological nuances and stormy conflicts that lead to the play’s tragic end. Casey Hoekstra is Happy, the Loman id, smooth as a Damon Runyon player who always finds the way to get what he wants. Marcus Truschinski plays Biff with the appropriate brood and torment, the family truth-teller who just can’t seem to leave the house of illusion that his father has built on that Brooklyn cul-de-sac.

Brian Mani and Tracy Michelle Arnold Photo by Liz Lauren
Brian Mani and Tracy Michelle Arnold. Photo by Liz Lauren.

As Linda, Tracy Michelle Arnold is vulnerable, world-weary and fierce. Playing a younger woman in the play’s flashbacks, she is radiant with the promise of her young family, looking over them with a placid satisfaction and confidence. In Linda’s older years, you see the toll they have taken, but also the tenacity to which she holds on to the family that has been the center of her life.

Willy is the role of a lifetime, and Mani digs in deep, beginning with his Sisyphus-like entrance in which he once again lugs his valises home from a sales trip. He holds tight onto his idea of the American Dream, so tight, of course, that it becomes more hallucination than aspiration. His confrontations with Biff are charged and finally withering as you watch the father and son march inevitably toward the play’s conclusion. It is, as Miller wrote, “The Tragedy of the Common Man,” generating the pity and fear that defined tragedy when the theater was in its infancy.

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Paul Kosidowski is a freelance writer and critic who contributes regularly to Milwaukee Magazine, WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio and national arts magazines. He writes weekly reviews and previews for the Culture Club column. He was literary director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater from 1999-2006. In 2007, he was a fellow with the NEA Theater and Musical Theater Criticism Institute at the University of Southern California. His writing has also appeared in American Theatre magazine, Backstage, The Boston Globe, Theatre Topics, and Isthmus (Madison, Wis.). He has taught theater history, arts criticism and magazine writing at Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.