For their last production this season, the Reston Community Players are trying Arthur Miller's difficult, Pulitzer prize-winning play, "Death of a Salesman." It's a work that has been badly botched by professionals and amateurs alike, but the Players deserve kudos for a good attempt--they almost pull it off.
But not quite. The serious flaw is the play's toughest role, Willy Loman, played by a fine local character actor, Carter Coghill. Coghill does a good job with the dialogue of Miller's "everyman," a Brooklyn salesman running on "a shoe shine and a smile," but he overdoes the sheer weariness of the man and dreariness of his life, so that Willy's eventual suicide, when it comes, seems long overdue.
Willy Loman is a man layered with fantasies and memories, whose life depends upon the hyperbole that makes a good salesman. "The wonder of this country," he tells us, "is that a man can end up with diamonds on the basis of being well liked."
It isn't diamonds that Willy reaps, however, but death: death of his job, as the old buyers fade away and he loses his ability to make a sale; death of his eldest son's respect, on which he has always depended; and finally, death of the will to live, which is strangely mutated into an enthusiastic will to die.
Willy has always lied about life: about his own powers as a salesman, about the worth of his family and his home, about the way life should be lived. He encourages his sons to share these fantasies and to add that extra bit of undeserved worth to their self-images by lying, cheating and stealing whatever they want.
Finally, when his eldest son Biff (tightly acted by Jim Riehl) catches him in bed with another woman, the boy is able to see Willy for what he is--a phony--though it takes Biff another 15 years to bring himself into the same harsh focus.
Willy is not interested in focusing, but in retaining the golden years. "Oh, how do we get back to all the great times, when there was always some kind of good news coming up?" he laments.
He slips back to those memories as often as possible, fantasizing about his sons' boyhoods and his own lost opportunities of youth. Producer Vivian Kramish, admitting their production's "unfortunate budget," says that portraying those fantasies posed serious technical challenges for the Players.
"We have to strike our sets after each production for the community center in which they perform , so the set had to be kept simple. We decided to portray Willy's fantasies with special lighting on the apron, to set them apart from the rest of the play."
Thanks to lighting designer Melanie Eyre's smooth transitions, the lighting trick works, and the audience is able to keep reality and fantasy distinct. That's more than can be said for poor Willy, whose fantasies are always tinged with the realities that created them, always urging him toward the facts of his own failure.
He will have none of it. Despite the loving support of his wife (played with superb control by Sally Kalmus) and the gentle urgings of his brother Charley (Leonard Greenberg, the only member of the cast who even remotely sounds like he's from Brooklyn), Willy covers up, tunes out, weaves and dodges reality throughout the play.
Finally Biff confronts him with his painful conclusion that "I'm a dime a dozen--and so are you, Pop." Willy only picks up on the love the son has for him, however, and conceives an irrational plan to reward that love with the proceeds from a $20,000 insurance policy, payable on death.
It's a long play, even with the cuts the Reston Players made, and a heavy one, making it rough competition with the summer fluff movies and plays offered elsewhere. But with good directing by Robert Nelson, and excellent supporting actors like Sally Kalmus, it's a play worth watching--and an attempt worth making by the Players.
Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," performed by the Reston Community Players, 8:30 p.m. June 25 and 26 in the Reston Community Center, Hunters Woods Village Center. Tickets are $4.50 for adults; $3 for students and senior citizens. For information, call 476-4500.