A great play remains vital and relevant no matter how old it is, and Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” certainly has proven itself to be a great play.
Close to seventy years old, the play’s desperately striving characters, obsessed with money and making it, feel as contemporary today as they did when they first stepped onto the stage in 1949. With each production, the attentive viewer finds something new to explore, and in New Yiddish Rep’s presentation of the play at the Castillo Theatre, we can appreciate the deep Jewish roots of this essentially American story.
Arthur Miller was a Jew and grew up among Yiddish-speaking Jews in New York. Many Jews who see “Death of a Salesman” feel intuitively that the dialogue has a Yiddish tang, and that this is a Jewish family. Though Willy Loman is not identified as Jewish, it’s never really in question. The Lomans are the classic lower-middle-class Jewish family, hoping for greater things for the kids, terrified of sliding down the ladder into the working class.
The translation New Yiddish Rep is using was done by the great Yiddish actor Joseph Buloff, and it feels as natural and convincing as if the actors were speaking the original words. Switching to English when Willy speaks to non-Jews, or when the sons Biff and Happy speak to each other, adds to the realism. That’s just how bilingual families behave. Miller was famously protective of his work, but he eventually granted production rights to Buloff, who had staged an unauthorized Yiddish version in Argentina while “Salesman” was still in the middle of its premiere run on Broadway.
Directed by Moshe Yassur, the New Yiddish Rep’s production eliminates the scenery and elaborate sets and focuses on the actors and the words. The simplicity of the production underlines the expressionistic quality of the play. While it is often considered a realist classic, “Death of a Salesman” is not a strictly naturalistic play. Dead people appear, time shifts abruptly, memory merges with reality. Stage veteran Avi Hoffman’s heart-rending performance as Willy brings out the pathos of the aging salesman teetering on the edge of suicidal depression. He is a man who feels himself a failure in every way, unable even to hold on to the little he has. His wife Linda is beautifully played by Suzanne Toren with almost saintly devotion and dignity. The Lomans are a portrait of what married love can be — a sanctuary of understanding and sympathy. Hoffman and Toren are both experienced and talented actors, and their Yiddish is flawless.
There is little understanding between Willy and his sons Biff (Daniel Kahn) and Happy (Lev Herskovitz). These two have been wounded by their father’s enslavement to the illusion of success, and perhaps by their mother’s neglect. The ridiculous names Miller gave the sons gains sharper meaning in this production as an expression of Willy’s assimilationist dreams.
Yiddishist Shane Baker plays Charley, the Loman’s neighbor, with quiet assurance and empathy. His speech at the end of play is one of the few that does not do as well in Yiddish; I guess “It comes with the territory” is too perfect a line to change.
Most Jews are financially secure today, but everyone except the super-rich is haunted by the possibility of ruin. We hound our children to study ever harder, engage special tutors to teach them esoteric skills, fight with their teachers and coaches to be more forgiving. In other words, we do all the things that Willy does or wants to do. Somehow, it’s never enough. Miller’s vision of the ravenous nature of American capitalism is as acute as ever, and the New Yiddish Rep’s production brings it into sharp focus.