Though Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Death of a Salesman takes place in Brooklyn 70 years ago, the characters and their quotidian tribulations feel no less relevant in Short Order Theatre Company’s debut performance of the classic work. In the era of president Donald Trump, Death of a Salesman indicts white, masculine hubris as much as it does the false promise of the American Dream.
We meet the play’s aging protagonist, Willy Loman (Tim Platt), in the twilight of his career. His demons have resurfaced with the return of his wayward son, Biff (Lee Yang), and his grasp on reality is rattled loose. The play unfolds across the landscape of Willy’s addled mind, moving between present day, his memories, and hallucinations of his fantastically successful brother, to whom he's never measured up. For Willy’s mediocrity, it's impossible not to empathize with him, antihero as he may be.
But in his blustery statements about being the most well-liked man in New England, I heard hyperbole a la Trump. And Willy's advice to his young sons on that front called to mind a New York Times investigation on how Trump built his fortune: In addition to tax fraud, he and his father lined their pockets by manipulating the stock market. What would Willy Loman have done the resources of a Queens real estate developer? Should we pity his disjointed relationship with reality or condemn it?
The play closes with a monologue from Linda, Willy’s widow (Melissa Collins Henderson), over her husband’s grave. Unable to bear the indignity of being fired for his delusional outbursts and having to borrow money from his neighbor, Willy has committed suicide, just as his wife made the last mortgage payment on their home. Linda is at first gobsmacked, unable to cry. Her words crumble into sobs as she realizes she must now live in their hard-earned house alone.
Henderson’s performance carries the play from start to finish through the scant emotional downbeats. There is a universally recognizable wife and mother in her organic delivery of Linda’s concern for her husband, and even in her profound sadness.
Platt as Willy—screaming, pleading, crying—is her equal and opposite. His performance unfolds at an emotional decibel not easily endured by an audience (or sustained by a performer). Willy Loman isn't just the canary in the American Dream coal mine. He's a portrait of pathological masculinity, complicated by remorse and concern for his family's well-being. His histrionics are hard to watch, but it's no time to look away. That it hurts to listen to him is rather the point.
Death of a Salesman
Feb 14–Mar 3, Slate Theater, $20–$35