The delusional Willy Loman, head of the household in Arthur Miller’s now-classic “Death of a Salesman,” is one of the American theater’s outstanding characters. And he’s as ripe for interpretation as a Jersey tomato is right now for picking.
Kash Goins’ version of Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman,” a production of his GoKash company at Plays & Players Theatre, is like one of those Jerseys: big, fierce in its coloration, and juicy all around. One of Goins’ specialties in general is the power of his emotional eruption and although his Loman sometimes seems more a volcano than a man in the throes of torment, it works.
Ozzie Jones’ feisty production does, too, and with some curious touches that make it unique if sometimes confusing. This African-American version of the play – which, like other GoKash productions gives black actors the opportunity to perform roles not normally available to them – has Loman hearing a recurring sound in his head. It’s the rousing voice of Marcus Garvey, one of the last century’s most powerful shapers of what would become the notions of black pride and self-determination, and it haunts Loman, a man of great dreams and stifling realities, wherever he goes.
Goins uses a mad look to bring off this sound in his head especially well, with help from Pamela Hobson’s lighting and Rox Reverendo’s sound design, which ends the seconds-long repeating Garvey segment with a horrible crashing noise. It could be the literal sound of Loman’s Studebaker or a metaphor that encompasses his increasing descent. Or both. Whatever the meaning, we know from the start that Willy Loman, an especially looming figure here given Goins’ large build and stage presence, is deflating fast.
Jones employs another sound device, not so successfully. When Loman wanders into the recesses of his mind, mostly to give us flashbacks, Jones uses Cab Calloway, Bessie Smith, African rhythms and other similar sound-bites as background. This also gives the production a cachet, but Jones is inconsistent – sometimes the reason we’re hearing this sudden accompaniment is apparent, sometimes not; at one point, we hear it behind only a couple lines of dialogue and then it ends, and at other points, we’re clearly not in flashbacks. The logic becomes murkier as the play moves forward, and the device loses its force.
The director also tinkers with the script to update the language here and there – “what you got to do that for?” and “get with the program” were probably not available to Arthur Miller in 1949. But then again, the idea that this could be a play about a black family was probably not in his vision. In this production, the idea seems native to the script. Willy Loman is a man who reaches for the American dream but never seems to grasp anything except its promise, and is thwarted by many factors including his own limitations. In addition, Arthur Miller has Loman’s brother making a fortune as an entrepreneur in Africa, a part of the plot that works especially well here.
The production has a strong cast, with a down-to-earth Tamara Woods as the wife who sees right through Loman, an unsuccessful salesman on the road, even as she constantly bucks him up. (Alicia Diane, whom I did not see, takes the role some nights.) Eric Carter and Carlo Campbell are highly effective as the grown son who cannot live up to his dad’s expectation and the other grown son who lives for pleasure; they’re much less genuine in flashbacks, playing the roles as cartoonish teenagers. Richard Bradford is the smart kid next door, Steve Lunger is effective as the boss looking to get rid of Loman, and Monroe Barrick gives a fine performance as the generous neighbor who has his own ways to repel Loman’s combativeness.
Britt Plunkett’s set has the fading look of the Loman home, and Shereeta Green’s costumes match the period. That time in the ’40s, just after World War II had ended, would hold great promise. But not for America’s aging sales force on the road, too far gone for the new wave of merchandising and economic prosperity that would come. The production makes that case for Willy Lomans, black or white.
“Death of a Salesman,” from GoKash productions, runs through August 17 at Plays & Players Theatre, Delancey Street between 17th and 18th Streets. gokashproductions.com.