‘Death of a Salesman’ Explores Demise of American Dream at Bay Street

David Manis and Carolyn Popp in "Death of a Salesman"
David Manis and Carolyn Popp in "Death of a Salesman," Photo: Lenny Stucker/Bay Street Theater

The results of an online search for “best” or “most important” American plays prove that Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is indeed an American classic. First staged in February 1949, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and numerous Tony Awards. Since then, the play has been revived on Broadway four times and has played on countless regional theater stages the world over, including, now, Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor.

The play’s main character, Willy Loman (played impeccably by Broadway veteran David Manis), is a travelling salesman. He’s now 63, and so most of his clients from his heyday are dead or retired. Now, sales are hard to come by, money is tight, and the subsequent stress, and Willy’s personal demons, haunt him and begin to affect his state of mind. He’s old and tired, he talks to himself, his wife, Linda (Carolyn Popp), thinks he might kill himself. To top it all off, Willy’s ne’er-do-well son Biff (Rob DiSario) is home from Texas, sharing their childhood room with his brother, Happy (Scott T. Hinson).

Through fluidly staged flashbacks, the audience gets to see the Loman family in better times, throwing around a football and discussing Biff’s athletic promise. But we also discover the source of Biff’s animosity towards his father. Indeed, there is a palpable tension, expertly executed by Manis and DiSario, between Willy and Biff. After a family blow-up, Biff and Happy placate their parents (an angry Willy and desperate Linda) with a plan to get Biff a job with his high-school-days employer and then go into business together. Inspired, Willy decides to ask his boss, Howard (Keith Cornelius), to take him off the road and give him a New York desk job. Long story short, neither meeting goes as planned and more family drama is in the future.

Theater aficionados might be disappointed that the play, as part of Bay Street’s Literature Live! series, has been abridged, lasting only 1 hour, 45 minutes. Students will no doubt respond well to this version. The paying public, however, might find this production slightly lacking overall for that reason. There is certainly context and deeper nuances missing. In the end, though, it is a fine production, well acted, well directed and well designed. And our paying does allows students to experience top-notch theater for free.

What makes Death of a Salesman relevant today is Willy Loman’s pursuit of the so-called American Dream. “Once in my life I’d like to own something outright before it’s broken! I’m always in a race with the junkyard,” Willy says referring to “that goddam Studebaker…on its last legs.” Willy Loman was sold an unattainable dream more than two decades before and is now a used-up salesman on his own last legs, He’s one payment away from owning the Hastings refrigerator; one payment away from owning the house. “Work a lifetime to pay off a house,” he says. “You finally own it, and there’s nobody to live in it.” Alas, the American Dream, though dutifully pursued, was always one installment away. Willy is all of us—As Linda says, “Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper.” —an everyman, struggling to make ends meet in an unforgiving world. Linda continues: “But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.” Yes, attention must be paid to the Willy Lomans of the world, in 1949, 2017 and beyond.

Death of a Salesman runs through November 25. 1 Bay Street, Sag Harbor. 631-725-9500, baystreet.org.

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