The American Dream has taken its lumps in the new millennium. Millions of people lost their homes in the financial crisis of the Great Recession, and millions more have been left behind by the recovery.
What's more, there's a sense abroad in the land that the game is rigged. That the same smart guys whose breathtakingly arrogant gambling with others' money shoved us very nearly free-fall into the Abyss not only got off with their millions, they're probably at it again.
All of which explains why Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" has a certain au courant vibe these days. In the taut, new production of the play that opened Thursday night at Medford's Randall Theatre, Peter Quince's crumbling Willy Loman could almost be the all-American schlub next door, circa 2009.
Quince's Willy is a rumpled everyman beaten down by forces outside his control and by the fruits of his own misapprehension of the world he lives in. It's a chilling portrait. Everything about him — his slumped posture, rumpled suit and limp hair, his hangdog expression and lifeless voice — says defeat.
What's common coin these days was decidedly contrarian in the late 1940s when Miller wrote what's now widely seen as one of the great American plays. America had helped whip the Nazis and come home with sleeves rolled up and ready to build a future of limitless promise. To suggest there was rot at the center of the dream was to fly in the face of a narrative that wasn't just dominant but gathering steam.
A brief refresher. Willy has covered the New England territory for his company for more than 30 years, toting his sample cases from hotel to hotel and buyer to buyer. But he's come off the road and home to his wife, Linda, with a bad case of mental and physical burnout. Quince's whole presence says this man has played by the rules and wound up being ruined by forces he didn't understand.
In part, that's because in the dark world Miller has placed him in, Willy has put his faith in the wrong place, in a narrative that says if you simply work hard and be likable, keep a smile on your face and a shine on your shoes, you'll get ahead. But Willy gets fired by his old boss's son, operating in a system that simply can't afford Willy Lomans. In addition, it's because in this world, as in a Shakespeare history play, the present is haunted by a past it can't outrun.
And that past has less to do with Miller's critique of what he sees as the corrosive effects of the culture of American capitalism than with the Loman family. Willy's life on the road was less apple pie than he would like us to believe. In fact, a discovery made by his elder son, Biff (Jonathan Matthews), when he was about to fail to graduate from high school (he's 34 in the play's present), plays into his subsequent feckless young manhood drifting through farm and ranch jobs in the American West (whether you believe this or not is another question).
The Lomans have lived in their Brooklyn home almost long enough to pay it off, a component of the Dream that may be the major triumph of Linda Loman's life, but with which Miller is less than impressed. Apartment buildings, represented by set designer Russell Medeiros' abstract urban skyline, have gone in all around, lending an air of something claustrophobic and rendering the Lomans' yard too shaded to grow vegetables.
For the home's interior, Medeiros has stuffed Willy and Linda's (Judith Rosen) bedroom into an elevated nook upstage right. Biff and Happy's (Aaron Garber) bedroom, which they shared as boys and are temporarily sharing again in their 30s, is high up stage left. Center stage is the Loman kitchen, where much of the action takes place and which also serves as offices, a hotel room and a restaurant in other scenes.
Crowding all this onto the Randall stage plays into the feeling of an overheated family environment with the walls crowding in on everybody. Center stage also serves as the interior of Willy's mind as he has flashbacks and/or hallucinations.
In this world, his rich elder brother, Ben (Jason Brooks-Torres), shows up from time to time to lord it over Willy, boasting to Biff and Happy that, "Why, boys, when I was 17 I walked into the jungle, and when I was 21 I walked out, and by God I was rich!"
Although the set performs admirably, the scenes that take place inside Willy's mind could perhaps make additional use of stagecraft to signal what's happening to those who don't know the story, perhaps something with lighting.
Tyler Ward, who directed, clearly has a firm vision of the play, which needs nothing to trick it up, resulting in a lucid production all the way through. Interestingly, he focuses in his notes not on the Loman family but on the destructive power of an American Dream based on drive and pluck.
In performance, though, it is Willy's coming apart, Linda's struggle to help him and Willy's conflict with the boys, especially Biff, that deliver the juice. Quince gives Willy something more than the defeat he wears like a moth-eaten sweater. Like many failures, he strikes out in his pathetic rage at his wife and family. Rosen is a fine Linda, doggishly devoted but clueless. Despite Willy's belief in the power of being well-liked, we doubt that he ever was.
Matthews is a powerful Biff, a dramatic force opposing the emotional weight of Willy with his impacted rage, failure and ultimate fight to face reality. It's a fine performance by Matthews, who could benefit, however, from noting that if you turn it up to nine in every scene, there's nowhere left to go in the end. Garber's Happy does a good job of trying to patch things over, but the character could use a bit more sleaze.
"Death of a Salesman" is a vibrant, moving production of an American classic. It plays at 7 p.m. June 26, 27, 28 and 29 and July 3 and 5; and at 1 p.m. June 22 and 29 and July 6 at the Randall, 10 Third St., Medford. Reserved tickets are $15. Visit www.randalltheatre.com or call 541-632-3258.
Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.