Ten minutes into Arthur Miller's 1949 drama Death of a Salesman, you understand why it won the Pulitzer Prize and Tony and Critics' Circle awards for Best Play.
The central character, Willy Loman, is someone that everyone knows, a guy who never made it in life because of his own flawed values. He lies to his wife, his two troubled boys, his boss, his neighbors, and most of all, to himself.
And thanks to finely delineated performances by director Harvey Lasky's cast at The Forum at Stage West Community Playhouse, there's no guessing what is going on (though a note or a word about the year the play takes place would help the audience get into the story more quickly).
The play opens as Willy, a traveling salesman, is nearing age 60, beaten down by 36 years of driving endless roads and toting heavy sample cases from store to store over his New England territory.
His two sons, both of them losers in life, have come home for a visit after being gone for 10 years. Willy's wife, Linda, is intent on protecting her beloved Willy from anything their boys might do or say to puncture Willy's delusions about himself and them.
It's a losing battle.
Still, we care about these people because we recognize someone we love (perhaps ourselves) in each one.
Allen Magnus is wonderful as a befuddled Willy, struggling with the present as voices from the past haunt him. Magnus' Willy seems confused by it all and not ready to accept any of the failures that surround him.
The ghost of his long-dead brother, Ben (a haunting Murray Serether), who stumbled into wealth in Africa, hovers over Willy, reminding him of his failures and cowardice.
Willy's favorite son, Biff, a promising athlete in high school, has become a drifter. His younger son, Hap, has become a shiftless, big-talking womanizer. Even so, Willy has convinced himself that his boys are on the brink of unlimited success.
Chris Hubner gives a magnificent performance as Biff, the only one in the Loman family who seems capable of self-awareness. In flashbacks, we see Biff's values being formed as he steals a football from the locker room with Willy's approval, steals lumber and sand from a nearby building site at Willy's urging and goofs off his chance at college, also because of his father. Hubner's raw, sensitive and emotional performance puts in bold relief Biff's struggle to live in reality, even as his father, brother and mom urge him to continue in the Loman dream world.
Daniel Laufenburg's Hap is Biff's opposite, willing to go along with Willy's illusions, hoping to win his dad's approval. Hap, desperate for validation, blurts out whatever he thinks Willy wants to hear. Laufenburg's breezy, but anxious Hap is the quintessential Lothario.
Stage West newcomer Rene Matchet is a touching and tragic Linda, betrayed, insulted and denigrated by Willy in every way possible, but still blindly loyal and devoted to him, making it easy for him to keep his fantasies.
The supporting characters are equally strong, notably Peter Clapsis as Howard, the cigar-chomping, self-absorbed son of the man who hired Willy. Clapsis' Howard is "all about me and mine," as he blithely dismisses Willy's need and pain and shows off his newfangled recording contraption that costs as much as it would take to make Willy solvent.
Paul Gibson does a fine Charlie, the neighbor who tries to pull Willy into reality, but can't. Ben Kirchman is convincing as Charlie's bookworm son Bernard, the brunt of Willy's scorn when his boys were young, but everything he wishes they were when they are older.
Death of a Salesman is a riveting 2 hours, 55 minutes long, but it seems shorter because of taut story that rings with familiarity.
Every beautiful line has meaning, every object is a symbol of something larger, and it all makes sense, even when the script is jumping between now and 10 or 25 years ago, again, thanks to fine direction, good performances and Dan Brijbag's clever use of the limited room on The Forum's small stage and careful lighting design.
This is drama for grown-ups, and we can only hope that Stage West makes a policy that, in the future, fussy toddlers and babies are kept in the lobby so that the adults can immerse themselves into the layers of meaning in this powerful and unforgettable story.