If many now feel America is entering a nightmare age, Ubuntu Theater Project’s production of Arthur Miller’s standard-bearer of thwarted American hope, Death of a Salesman, offers strange, distorted messages from the past. There's plenty of anger in Miller's 1949 play, but there's no President Trump to direct it at and give it political shape.
Willy Loman, the deluded salesman of the title, is furious, and he's furious at the system. And yet he saves his most savage attacks for his wife Linda, his sons Biff and Happy, and worst of all, himself. For Loman, the political is personal, and that’s all it is. Right from its premiere, critics have argued over the play's curious blending of metaphysics and social protest: Is it a tragedy? Is an American tragedy even possible? And if so, has Miller achieved that exalted state?
The Ubuntu production, under Michael Socrates Moran’s direction, finds its own strange path to these questions, as well as the question of what to make of Miller’s play in 2017. That it begins as a slight dream on a fall day is the first surprise. You enter the theater and the actors are already there, the stage covered with what looks like freshly blown leaves. And there’s Loman, sleeping on a mound of suitcases as the cast wanders about the stage in raincoats and fedoras.
It’s an arresting and beautiful opening image, perfectly calibrated to suit Ubuntu’s church-loft theater -- a Salesman filtered through the eyes of Rene Magritte and Samuel Beckett. Long-time Bay Area actor Julian López-Morillas' performance is superb, both in playing Loman, and, more importantly, in playing the character in a way that feels as if he's seeped himself into the scenery. It's a nightmare, but a gentle, surrealist one tinged with care.
And that’s the key tension in Ubuntu's production: the weird relationship between kindness and horror. It’s not that Loman is without people who love him, or that he lives in a world without compassion. It’s that legitimate care and love make him feel worthless. Linda’s defense of his so-called importance -- “attention must be paid” -- leads Loman to further pain and delusions. His neighbor Charley’s offer of help, in the form of a job with enough money to survive, comes as a stinging rebuke. Sixty-eight years later, Loman's despair probably would have led him to embrace the raucous anger of Trump or the white-hot socialism of Bernie Sanders, but here he's just lost.
When the production gives full expression to these subtle humiliations, you feel Miller’s play and vision in a new way -- that kindness can be just as corrosive as hate. Yet, getting this message across is a high-wire act that Moran and his cast have trouble maintaining.
The production is packed with fitful moments of brilliance that come from the force and focus of the acting in relation to the production and design. Dawn Troupe’s Linda floats through the leaves on stage without a crackle, sometimes seeming to disappear right in front of us. You have a sense that Norman Gee’s Charley just walked across the street and into the play. And Margherita Ventura’s floozy feels as if she came to the theater drunk, sat in the front row, and fell onto the stage. They, along with López-Morillas, cut deep into the play and temper Moran’s stylized direction with a haunting reality.
But not all of the performances succeed. Nathaniel Andalis and Mohammad Shehatat as Biff and Happy are good actors, but they tend to play to their own characters rather than the whole production. They aren’t rooted in the landscape the way López-Morillas is. In this production, false notes are hard to hide. They jar you away from what’s most compelling about the dreamscape. Ubuntu is a daring company, and this is in many ways a daring production with many terrific moments. But it feels unfinished.
For all the debates about what Miller achieved with Salesman, there was always the feeling that he had cut through to a complete experience and spoken directly to the ills of the country. We’ve moved to a different kind of reality now, and so Ubuntu's Salesman feels appropriate. It's a trip to the past to see the genesis of the future, and yet we want and need more from this production. We need for Moran and his actors to finish the circle, to take us from the metaphysical disaster of a lone Salesman to the political one we're experiencing now. They've taken a few strong steps to do just that, but the full journey is still unrealized.
'Death of a Salesman' runs through Sunday, Mar. 5, at the Brooklyn Preserve in Oakland. For tickets and information, see here.