- Photo courtesy of Duquesne University
- Left to right: Mark Yochum, Nathaniel Yost and Curt Wootton in Death of a Salesman, at Duquesne Red Masquers.
While Death of a Salesman is a canonical play, I had always thought of Willy Loman as a contemporary tragic type. At the Duquesne University Red Masquers’ new production, it struck me for the first time that Willy — who’s age 63 during the play’s present action, set in 1949 — was born around 1886, and would have launched his sales career before Ford rolled out its first Model T.
That fact highlights not only the play’s timelessness, but also playwright Arthur Miller’s deft way with America’s peculiar myths and obsessions. Within a single Brooklyn family and its memories, he crashes the frontier mythos of rugged individualism into the mid-century tract-home lifestyle, and nestles the conflict in a father-son psychological struggle that’s as intellectually absorbing as it is emotionally wrenching.
Director John E. Lane’s production (his 100th for the Red Masquers) inaugurates the university’s Genesius Theater, whose sleek black box is a welcome addition to the city’s stage scene. Though in truth, Salesman is such a powerful play, and Lane’s direction of it so thoughtful and uncluttered, that this production would work in an Arby’s.
Veteran actor Mark Yochum (by day a Duquesne law prof) plays Willy, the washed-up traveling salesman who’s losing his grasp on reality and his will to live. Haunted by the past, he has seen Eliot’s eternal Footman hold his coat and snicker and, in short, though Willy is as fearful as Prufock, he’s also furious. Yochum elicits Willy’s bitterest edge, employing a nasal vocal register which rightly helps prevent Willy from becoming too sympathetic for us to see him clearly.
Curt Wootton (best known as YouTube’s “Pittsburgh Dad”) capably portrays depressed and aimless eldest son, Biff, with Nathaniel Yost as Happy. Standing out is Nancy Bach Love as Willy’s loyal and long-suffering wife, Linda. At junctures Love is as crucial to the play as Linda is to Willy himself; her “a small man can be as exhausted as a great man” monologue should wring you dry.
“You gotta break your neck to see the stars in this yard,” says Willy, poignantly. By contrast, the Red Masquers’ Salesman stands before us plain as day.