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In the Moment: ‘Death of a Salesman’ at Ford’s Theatre

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“There’s just no spot for you,” is the terse way that Willy Loman’s “snotnose” boss-man Howard tells Loman he is fired. Just go and don’t look back, “cause you gotta admit, business is business.”

Craig Wallace, Thomas Keegan, Kimberly Schraf, and Danny Gavigan. Photo by Scott Suchman.

With much distance in time from the first time I read Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and, having witnessed any number of productions since, those lines resonated differently and stronger than in the past. In earlier times, perhaps because of youth or professors, I listened intently for lines about “attention must be paid” or definitions of success as being well-liked, attractive, and financially secure.

This time around, with Fords brick-solid production of Miller’s Death of a Salesman, what I took away were not the intimate details and short-comings of Willy or his family, but the expendability of an entire generation of workers. And no, not Baby Boomers per se. Rather, I was reeling, thinking of those toiling at warp speed right now: Millennials, perhaps working multiple jobs to survive. With them in mind, Death of a Salesman becomes a harbinger of the future, not just a deep look-back into the past and one particular man and his family.

Craig Wallace. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Stephen Rayne’s direction and the laser-sharp, towering man-on-the-ropes performance by Craig Wallace as Everyman Willy Loman, takes off into the now. Along with the finely etched work of Kimberly Schraf as Willy’s wife Linda, Danny Gavigan as son Happy, and Thomas Keegan as son Biff, the Ford’s Salesman has plenty to say about the various intersections of living life.

The deeply wrought revival of Death of a Salesman at Ford’s left me to wonder about the future of not only older workers who played by the rules and are now hurting, but of today’s gig-economy workers for whom security and loyalty are just a fanciful chimera. (Even Federal government workers are fearfully losing security as the so-called “swamp” is drained).

Is the future for today’s Millennials and those coming right behind them to be not so different than Willy Loman? Are they not also a sales force carrying a product in a heavy suitcase, that product being themselves, with their coding or social media skills? Will they too be discarded for a newer model–perhaps a life-like replicant or android that can be re-coded or forcefully “retired” as necessary – with the latest sought-after skills. After all, Willy Loman was not always a disheveled old man.

Will a majority of today’s disruptors and quick-on-their-feet workers feel betrayed if not worse when fired by someone younger? A “snotnose” who cares not a shit for what they once could do, but only for immediate, bottom-line benefits? Will today’s Millennial worker mumble as they’re cut-loose: “I’m strapped. I’m strapped. I don’t know what to do. I was just fired.” The economy is rigged against me.

Kimberly Schraf, Danny Gavigan, Craig Wallace, and Thomas Keegan. Photo by Scott Suchman.

This train of thought only increased as I read the front page of the Sunday, October 1, 2017 Washington Post about new realities for those forgotten in America. The article has this pull-out quote:

“The little people are drowning and nobody wants to talk about it.”

But wait, Ford’s seems to have thought about this question and has a special event aimed at those under 35.

Looking through special performance events for Death of a Salesman, I spotted an opportunity to test out my thoughts. Ford’s is having a “Death of a Salesman: Under 35 Night” after the October 6th performance. It is being marketed as an opportunity to “hang out with young arts fans” with a complimentary glass of beer or wine. Why not guide some of the conversations about the many different intersections that this production of Salesman brings out specifically for Millennial workers?

Kimberly Schraf. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Willy Loman’s disillusionment, anger, and bafflement have indeed transcended time and place. Yet, even he had power remaining. When Loman finally accepted he had nothing left to lose as he looked at the failures in his life compared to the success of others, and when he found no joy left within him, he took his own personal control to find his own freedom.

The finely wrought Death of a Salesman at Ford’s Theatre is worthy of plenty of attention. There are reasons galore why it is a classic, even after 70 years. See it and find what resonates with you. Then let me know.

Miller’s Willy Loman, had me thinking of these classic lyrics, from 50-year-ago old Bob Dylan:

Once upon a time you dressed so fine
Threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?
People call say ‘beware doll, you’re bound to fall’
You thought they were all kidding you
You used to laugh about
Everybody that was hanging out
Now you don’t talk so loud
Now you don’t seem so proud
About having to be scrounging your next meal
How does it feel, how does it feel?
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone

Running time: About three hours, with one intermission.

Death of a Salesman plays through October 22, 2017 at Ford’s Theatre – 511 Tenth Street, NW, in Washington DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 347-4833, or purchase them online.

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