Go figure. Clifford Odets and Arthur Miller, two young, Jewish, lefty playwrights driven by a deep distrust of capitalism and an even deeper faith in the little guy, create—in 1935 and 1949, respectively—the Bergers and the Lomans. Two middle-class households struggling on stage with the American Dream, two sets of unsuccessful children anxious to please ineffectual fathers and ultra-practical mothers, two family meltdowns, two insurance policies, two climactic suicides in two classic dramas: Awake and Sing! and Death of a Salesman.
It’s odder yet that the plays, so instructive both about mid-century playwriting techniques and the stage’s capacity for making little guys seem larger-than-life, should arrive in D.C. at the same moment. Arena Stage’s Awake and Sing! is naturalism writ large, while the Keegan Theatre’s Salesman is expressionism writ natural, but Bessie Berger and Willie Loman are theatrical kin—dramatically dominant figures in plays that are recognizably about the everyday.
Mind you, when Awake and Sing! opened on Broadway at the height of the Depression, the everyday wasn’t exactly commonplace in the theater. At a time of financial struggle, who wanted to see the Bergers dealing with poverty, disappointment, and dreams deferred when there was plenty of all that to deal with at home? Turns out, a lot of people, actually—enough not only to put Odets, first-time director Harold Clurman, and their Group Theatre on the theatrical map but also to prompt a pair of revivals before the ’30s were through. Some say Awake and Sing! changed the face of the American stage; certainly it made Broadway a place where Bronx-dwelling assimilationists could stand toe-to-toe with the Prince of Denmark and Fred Astaire, voicing concerns that had something to do with the real world.
Small wonder the play appeals to Arena Stage’s founding artistic director, Zelda Fichandler, who has returned to the institution she built to mount a show that champions the very notions she built it for. In the cadences of the Bergers, audiences with long memories will hear echoes of other raucous, eccentric families that have taken up residence at Arena—the Sycamores of You Can’t Take It With You, the Millers of Ah, Wilderness, even the Antrobus clan of The Skin of Our Teeth.
And Fichandler has brought to the revivifying of the Bergers the same love of detail and period that marked her work in Arena’s heyday. Discarded furniture lines the front of the stage, keeping the threat of eviction constant for a family that is just barely scraping by with the help of a boarder. And if that seems just a touch theatrical for a play rooted so firmly in reality, the rest of the production is ferociously true to life. The brick walls that frame Andromache Chalfant’s setting appear solid enough that patrons who’ve not been to the Kreeger Theater before might well think them part of the building’s structure. Linda Cho’s costumes have the well-worn look of garments washed a few times too often—and starched to disguise that fact. The director and her design team have created a stage home that feels lived in. When the Bergers sit at the table, and someone notes that the kitchen sink is unaccountably full of ants, you believe it. The grandkids’ complaints of being unable to “save, even for shoelaces,” their folks’ laments about a broken elevator, even Gramps’ defiantly cheerful declaration that “If this life leads to a revolution, it’s a good life” are all uttered in the simple rhythms of the everyday.
Odets made these people as similar to the audiences that first came to see them as he could, and their recognizability across the decades is a testament both to his craft and to a slew of savvy performances. Could Bessie (Jana Robbins) seem monstrous as a domineering matriarch with only one aim in life: protecting her family members from their own worst impulses? Well, she sure rides roughshod over the headstrong unmarried daughter (Miriam Silverman’s Hennie), rebelliously lovesick son (Adam Green), and dithering husband (Steve Routman) life has handed her. And if she shows a little deference to her father (Arena alumnus Robert Prosky, growling, pixie-ish, full of vinegar, and good to have back in his old stomping grounds), it’s more out of tradition than actual respect. But there’s a softer side of Bessie that Robbins lets us see as well. A plea for gentleness that surfaces when she must keep a successful brother (Brian Reddy) coming for visits or placate a nebbishy son-in-law (Richard A. Canzano) who joins the family after getting Hennie pregnant. She even has a fondness for the gimp of a boarder (Adam Dannheisser) who helps with the rent.
The play they all inhabit is filled more with the disorderliness of life than with the grace of art. The first two-thirds are filled with incident, but the plot doesn’t really kick in until the tail end of the evening, when it kicks a bit harder than it should. And the down-to-earthiness that once seemed the play’s greatest strength now seems largely to be short-circuiting the poetry for which Odets kept striving. Idealistic pronouncements (“from economic fear comes hate,” “without the dollar, you don’t count”) get spouted in language no more elevated than the commonplaces of daily life. No doubt those sentiments rattled audiences who had passed breadlines on their way into the theater, but the manner of expression feels overly bald today.
None of which diminishes the smart work Arena’s company is doing in making the people onstage authentic. Establishing their worth, and their right to trod the boards, is precisely what Odets was about in 1935, and Fichandler’s staging—even more than Odets’ writing—does that again 70 years later. Her work is subtler than the playwright’s. She has prodded his play awake; it’s his fault she can’t make it sing.
Arthur Miller’s language has always been exalted, often inappropriately so. Most New Jersey housewives would never say “Attention must be paid to such a man,” but oh, what a poorer place the theater would be if Linda Loman just told her kids, “Your dad deserves respect.”
There’s almost nothing realistic about Death of a Salesman, from the lingo to the ghosts, flashbacks, and “one-dimensional” roof-lines Miller asks for in the setting, yet the play strikes audiences as incontrovertibly lifelike. Willy Loman trudges onstage a beaten man at the outset, mistreats the wife and kids who love him despite his lies, disappoints them again and again, and we accept him as a tragic figure. In real life, he’d be a jerk; onstage, he’s all our most intimate fears about failure come to life—a magnificent ruin of a man, worth attending to as no other figure in American art has ever been.
At Church Street Theater, Brian Hemmingsen’s Willy is a soft-spoken giant, lumbering stoop-shouldered to the stage and almost immediately revealing the dreamer who still resides in the shell of a man that others see. He tells his wife how, just before driving off the side of the road on a trek he’s made every week for all of his adult life, he’d been observing the scenery. “The trees are so thick, and the sun is warm,” he marvels. “I opened the windshield and just let the warm air bathe over me.” And for a moment, Hemmingsen actually seems back there on the road, the gleam in his eyes still vital. But then his eyes cloud as Willy remembers the panic he felt a moment later, and the fear with which he limped home at 10 miles an hour.
That he’s returned to a domestic minefield of failure and disappointment, where every step is a misstep, not just for him but for his hapless sons and long-suffering wife, must be counted as a given at this late date. Few patrons will be startled at the events of Death of a Salesman, but that doesn’t really diminish their power. Dorothy Neumann’s understated staging for the Keegan Theatre is all about letting the play do the work. She’s encouraged Hemmingsen, who’s still a tad young to be climbing this particular mountain of a part, to let the audience see the brash salesman who once got by “riding on a smile and a shoeshine” and also to make Willy’s mood swings seem as dangerous to others as they are to him. Mark Rhea and Mike Innocenti carouse a bit too strenuously as high schoolers in flashbacks but are persuasive enough as the ne’er-do-wells Willy’s sons have become in middle age. Charlotte Akin lets you hear the strain behind Linda’s determined cheer, without letting it infect her gaze as she looks with adoration on the man who will inevitably let her down.
Good work’s being done in lesser parts, as well. No surprises, no showboating, but attention has been paid once more to the dreams of an Everyman we all somehow know better than he knew himself.CP