‘Death of a Salesman’ at Austin Playhouse puts topical spin on Miller’s classic

Marc Pouhé, Patrick Gathron, Billy Harden, Sean Christopher and Carla Nickerson in "Death of a Salesman." Contributed by Austin Playhouse

Marc Pouhé, Patrick Gathron, Billy Harden, Sean Christopher and Carla Nickerson in “Death of a Salesman.” Contributed by Austin Playhouse

For decades, Willy Loman — the titular protagonist from Arthur Miller’s acclaimed play “Death of a Salesman” — has been seen as the American everyman, the average working stiff whose tragic flaw was buying into the false presence of an American Dream that was never truly available to him.

What, though, are we to make of Loman in a world where the anger over the unfulfilled American Dream has radically overturned so many notions and promises of what America could and should be? Austin Playhouse, in a production of “Death of a Salesman” directed by Peter Sheridan (playing through March 12), makes pointed use of that question, even adding on an extra layer by casting the Loman family as African-American.

Marc Pouhé in "Death of a Salesman." Contributed by Austin Playhouse

Marc Pouhé in “Death of a Salesman.” Contributed by Austin Playhouse

As Willy Loman, the titular salesman, Austin theater heavyweight Marc Pouhé is at the top of his game. His version of Loman is angrier than some, and certainly more physically imposing. He plays to the contrast between Loman’s obsession with his own hardened masculinity and an increasingly fragmented psyche and softening mental capacity. Playing Willy’s eldest son, Biff, Patrick Gathron provides the perfect foil to this, with a version of Biff that is quick to recognize his own limitations and who longs for something different.

In Gathron’s hands, Biff becomes the character we root for in this production of “Salesman,” while Willy becomes somebody we are frightened of, even as he is enabled by his long-suffering wife, Linda (played with quiet depth by Carla Nickerson), and his glad-handing younger son, Happy (who Sean Christopher imbues with an almost sinister charm).

In his director’s notes, Sheridan explains that, “In making the Lomans an African-American family, the play taps into the struggles of the black community who did not buy into consumerism until much later. But when they did, the result was just as hollow as it had been for their white neighbors.”

The racial dynamics of this production are generally not as played up as they might be, but they work most strongly in the play’s final moments, when Biff and Charley, the Lomans’ white neighbor, argue over whether Willy ever truly knew himself. While Biff thinks Willy was a man who should have spent his life outdoors, working with his hands, Charley insists that Willy was a salesman through and through. In this moment, it’s impossible not to hear the echoes of countless African-American families who have been forced into misery and poverty by attempting to live up to the false expectations of white America.

In 1949, Arthur Miller showed the country that, for many, America was not great. It was, in fact, deadly. Austin Playhouse’s production of “Death of a Salesman” serves as a timely reminder that there is no perfect era to return to, but rather only a generational cycle of anger, resentment and violence that has been killing the American working man (whatever the color of his skin) for two-thirds of a century and which does not yet seem satiated by all that blood.

“Death of a Salesman”

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through March 12

Where: Austin Playhouse, 6001 Airport Blvd.

Cost: $32-$36

Info: 512-476-0084, austinplayhouse.com

 

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