One of the (many) remarkable things about Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is that each time I see it the play changes. This story about poor Willy Loman at the desolate end of his life, struggling to find out how he got there, began (60 years ago) as a powerful condemnation of the American Dream. As the years passed, it morphed into an equally powerful examination of the American Family. But who knew that Miller, way back in 1949, could predict the collapse of not just the American Dream, but America itself?
It's been said that the 20th century was the American Century, and that the 21st will be the Asian Century; we can certainly see that happening as America becomes more isolated politically while the economic behemoths of India and China awake. I guess we're on track to be the new Great Britain -- a once-powerful empire turned also-ran.
And, in the character of Willy Loman, Miller shows what those last gasps are going to look like. There's the America we were all taught to love in school ... and then there's the real America, founded on genocide, built on slave labor and world-famous as a murderous thug. There's the Loman family history that Willy has created and believed in ... and there's the real Loman family, held together by denial and covetousness and ready to clobber anyone not onboard. Reality, however, is beginning to intrude, and truth isn't something Willy (or America) can handle.
Pittsburgh scores a theatrical coup with Miller's son Robert in town to direct at the Playhouse Rep ... the first time he's ever directed this work. (Imagine your Dad being the guy who wrote Death of a Salesman? D'you think that made him more or less popular at school?)
Miller keeps a tight reign on the emotional content, which may be why the political side comes out so strongly. But while I'm certainly glad there's not a moment of melodrama, I do think that the evening is not merely cool, but cold. Everyone on stage, including John Shepard in the mammoth role of Willy, does strong, fiercely intelligent work. But I can't really say that the event ever catches fire. Ultimately I think that this is a production you can admire (and rightfully so) from the outside but not one that'll move you from within.
Death of a Salesman continues through Sept. 21. Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland. 412-621-4445 or www.pittsburghplayhouse.com