"Willy Loman never made a lot of money," says Linda Loman in one of the most famous speeches in Death of a Salesman. "His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. ... Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person." This assumption — that the fall of a "common" man is as worthy of our concern as the collapse of a prince — is one of the reasons why Salesman is a play not only of American, but of international importance. No other drama before it so convincingly made the case that there's tragic grandeur in every human, not just in royals and nobles. No other drama so powerfully argued that there is in the modern world a vast unseeable force — call it capitalism, or simply Fortune — just as capable as any Greek Destiny of crushing a once-hardy spirit. Watching Salesman, we should feel Aristotle's famous "pity and terror" — pity for the man being destroyed before our eyes, terror at the thought that we too are just as vulnerable. Watching Salesman we should feel that there are tragedies all around us, not just in castles and mansions but in tenement apartments, faltering department stores, screeching city buses and aging automobiles.
Of course, a great deal depends on the actor playing Willy Loman. It's said that when Lee J. Cobb first auditioned for the part on Broadway, he brought grown men to tears. And that's just the sort of performer needed: someone who can sum up, in a few moments, what it's like to be carrying the weight of the world and to be discovering, for the first time, that it's simply too heavy. The actor who plays Willy has to remind us at every moment that the ordinary is extraordinary, that at bottom even a dime-a-dozen traveling salesman possesses tragic dignity. If he convinces us of this quality, Arthur Miller's play can be devastating. Without it, the drama is little more than a case study.
Unfortunately, Rob Glidden, who plays Willy in Acorn Theatre's tolerably good inaugural production, doesn't possess this "ordinary" majesty. Glidden's a solid actor, but his Willy comes across as bland and colorless just when we need him to suggest inexpressible depths. It says in Glidden's bio that the actor once played Trigorin in Chekhov's The Seagull, and I can only imagine that he was perfect for the part. Trigorin, after all, is an uncomplicated writer whose status as a celebrity never touches his entirely conventional behavior. Glidden's a natural for this drab, mildly pleasant artist whose dearest desire is to go fishing; but not for the disintegrating salesman who's wracked by failure, increasingly hallucinatory, and painfully becoming conscious that will and desire may not be enough to exempt him from destruction. Which is not to say that Glidden doesn't have his moments. He's particularly effective in those segments of Act Two in which Willy loses self-control and rages at fate and family. But it's not enough; we need to sense Willy's wordless confusion and anger even when his outer self is tranquil, and we need to feel too that he's just inches from the edge of a terrible self-indictment. For all the virtues of Glidden's performance, it mostly keeps to the surface. And a Willy Loman without depth is a contradiction in terms.
Of course, the other crucial personage in the play is Willy's son Biff, played here by Ryan McCarthy. Biff is a complex character, a high school football star who throws away a college scholarship, a lover of wide open spaces who can't quite escape the city, a son who first idolizes and then despises his imperfect father. Somehow the actor who plays this complicated role has to suggest to us both the swagger of the universally loved quarterback and the tenderness of the scandalized son; but McCarthy gives us the tenderness and sensitivity to the exclusion of all else. This Biff is a dreamer, more logically a poet/neurotic than athlete/hero. Thin-skinned, haunted, on the cusp of tears at any given moment, this is a Biff who, while consistent, never adds up to Miller's figure of a young Adonis made arrogant by his father's overestimation, and more and more conscious that his vast pride has come at a cost. "He cried. Cried to me!" exclaims Willy with surprise near the end of the drama, but the way McCarthy plays Biff, we can't share Willy's astonishment; this character, we imagine, must weep pretty regularly.
The other members of the Loman family, mother Linda and son Happy, are notably well-performed. Perhaps the very best actor in the play is Brad Minus, who as Happy is physical, kinetic, smug and of (appropriately) limited awareness. Minus has that special quality — call it "charisma" for lack of a better word — that rivets our attention from the start, and persuades us that the actor and the part are indivisible. Also fine is Lynne Locher as Willy's long-suffering wife Linda; just one look at her troubled face and we sense a whole worldview, wherein all sorts of problems are heartbreakingly insoluble, and people characteristically fail their obligations. Other memorable performances are turned in by Kevin Kobasko as the arch-nerd Bernard, Maria Brent as Willy's occasional lover, and Molly Hutson as call girl Miss Forsythe. But Dennis Brandt never fully inhabits the role of neighbor Charley, Mike Miller is always a step away from being commanding as rich Uncle Ben, and Harry Richards is too monochromatic as Willy's boss Howard. Levi Kaplan's direction is capable and impressive — this is a demanding play, moving from present to past, from reality to apparition — but Mitch Oppolosque's set of the Loman house is neither attractive nor evocative. Jennifer J. Hurlburt's costumes are fine, though, and the sound design — uncredited in my program — is almost always terrific, especially when suggestive piano music underscores a crucial scene. The exception is at the end of the play, when Elton John's "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters" suddenly pours through the loudspeakers. Wrong country, wrong period.
Acorn Theatre took a huge risk in beginning its first season with a play as well-loved as Salesman. There's some return on the gamble: this Salesman is pretty good if not superb, interesting if not authoritative, cause for optimism — there are a few fine performances here — if not for utter confidence. If you've never seen Salesman, this isn't a profitless introduction; if you're a fan, this isn't an interpretation without insights. Call it a slight success; and remember that other relatively young companies in the area — for example Jobsite Theater and Alley Cat Players — also began with flawed productions. Let's hope that Acorn, like those others, has staying power. Real triumph in the arts seldom arrives without stamina.
There's another new stage company in the Tampa area, and its focus is mainly on musical comedies. The Salerno Theatre Company is currently offering Damn Yankees at Hyde Park's Friday Morning Musicale, and if the production isn't entirely persuasive, it's often charming. This is the story of a fan who bargains away his immortal soul just so his beloved Washington Senators can win the pennant for a change. The best actors/singers here are Shaun Rice as pre-deal fan Joe Boyd, Michael Mathews as post-deal phenom Joe Hardy, Melissa Brown as temptress Lola and Emily Gail Howell as journalist Gloria Thorpe. But too many of the other voices are unexceptional, and often the production has the feel of a particularly earnest community theater exercise. Add the blurry acoustics of the Musicale auditorium on the minus side, the clever painted backdrops of Michael Stramiello's set on the plus side, a couple of classic show tunes ("You've Got to Have Heart" and "Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets") as positives, and a couple of egregiously cheesy special effects as negatives, and the result is, well, mixed. I'll be curious to discover how Salerno evolves in coming months. Right now the evidence is, at best, contradictory.