I remember having to read the play Death of a Salesman when I was in high school. I heard it was about some salesman who was getting too old to work, and I groaned. It was going to be another one of those boring “classics” that were supposed to be good for us.
I was shocked, however, to realize that I really got into it. I didn’t have the life experience to fully appreciate the nuances of what was going on, but I did understand the concepts being talked about. I was fascinated by the way family conversations could expose so much about hopes, fears, regret and deception.
Fast-forward a couple of decades. The Kansas City Repertory Theatre is now presenting Death of a Salesman, through Feb. 10. Now I have a career and mortgage of my own, as well as an aging father who just retired. And the dark brilliance of this American tragedy finally and fully hits me.
Saying the play is about a salesman who is getting too old to work is technically accurate, but that’s like saying Romeo and Juliet is about two kids who aren’t allowed to date.
The main character is Willy Loman, a man who has made his living as a traveling salesman (interestingly, we never know what exactly he sells. This is one of the little details that make him such an iconic and universal character). He has decided that he needs to ask his boss for a position that won’t require him to travel anymore. Willy lives with his wife, Linda, a woman who knows him better than he knows himself. When their two grown sons, Happy and Biff, come for a stay with their parents, Linda tells them that their father is starting to fall apart, and may even be suicidal.
This sets the two boys into motion to do something to help Willy. However, it also triggers an avalanche of consequences from actions long ago. Repressed emotions boil up, years of self-deception can no longer be maintained, and everyone is forced to confront the fact that, for them at least, the American Dream is a cruel lie.
The set design is a physical manifestation of the script’s psychological truth — the Loman residence has walls that are translucent and shifting, exposing the functional yet ugly supports that keep it all up.
I keep waiting to see whether the Kansas City Rep ever hires actors that give poor performances. They haven’t yet. All the actors in this show know how to bring the masterful script to life — you lose the sense that they are acting. It’s as if we are watching this family drama unfold for the first time. Rusty Sneary and Kyle Hatley play the sons, and do an excellent job portraying the conflict between family responsibility and personal feelings. Merle Moores is fascinating as Linda. Moores is able to turn her character into an example of public courage covering private anguish.
And I don’t even know what really to say about Gary Neal Johnson, who played Willy. I’m sure I’ve seen him on stage before, but right now, I couldn’t tell you where. In my mind, he simply is Willy Loman. He didn’t exist before the show opened, and he didn’t exist after the show ended. He was a perfect choice for the character.
There are a very few moments in theatre that stick with me over time. I know that the ending of this show will be one of those moments. The entire auditorium was more silent than I even thought possible. And Linda’s ironic, heartrending cry of freedom stripped the flesh from my bones.
This is not a feel-good homage to the American way of life. It’s an existential, tragic meditation on what we expect from others — and ourselves — as we strive to make a decent life. This is a true classic handled in an expert way by one of the best theatres in the nation.
The Kansas City Repertory Theatre is presenting Death of a Salesman in its Spencer Theatre, 4949 Cherry St., Kansas City, Mo., through Feb. 10. For tickets, go to kcrep.org or call 816-235-2700.