Theater review: ‘Death of a Salesman’ might be this year’s best play

Theater review: ‘Death of a Salesman’ might be this year’s best play
Marcus Truschinski, Brian Mani and Casey Hoekstra, Death of a Salesman, 2016

If you are the kind of person who will read a website review of an American Players Theatre production, then you surely know a lot about “Death of a Salesman.”

Arthur Miller’s 1949 play about Willy Loman and his troubled family is regularly reconstructed in theaters, movies and television productions. It documents the psychic destruction of not only Loman but of his sons and, perhaps, his wife.

Here’s what you need to know about the current production in Spring Green: It might well be one of the best ever staged and certainly is one you should not miss this year.

Brian Mani, a 17-year APT veteran, plays Willy. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen every play Mani has been in during those 17 years and this is the best thing he’s ever done. It’s just an incredibly powerful play and Mani brings Loman to life every minute he is on stage.

Loman is a salesman; one who, at one time, could at least support his family. Now, he travels throughout New England and doesn’t bring home commissions sufficient to pay his bills.

He has a loyal but beaten-down wife, Linda, played by Tracy Michelle Arnold, whose affectation reminds a viewer of a beaten down and resigned Katharine Hepburn. The spark isn’t quite there, but it might have been at one point.

Loman also, as a flashback informs us, had a mistress, “The Woman,” played by Sarah Day. So, right here, we have some unusual casting. Day has been central to APT for 31 years, often playing comic, bossy woman characters. When one thinks, “mistress,” one doesn’t begin by conjuring up Sarah Day. But it works in this production. Everything works in this production.

Loman’s two sons, Biff, played by Marcus Truschinsky, and Happy, played by Casey Hoekstra, are two kinds of losers.

Biff was destined to be a success. He’s a star athlete who missed his chance at college because he flunked a math exam. He goes on to waste his life in small jobs that he keeps quitting. Happy goes to work in business and presents himself as a success, though he is just an assistant to an assistant who likes to seduce his employers’ girlfriends.

Loman has this idea: That the key to being a successful salesman is personality, having people like you, making friends in every port, attracting fellow salesmen from all over the country to your funeral.

Loman, of course, doesn’t have this personality. As Mani portrays him, he is bone-tired, discouraged and plagued by visions. He seems to have only one friend, Charley, played by Johnny Lee Davenport. He treats Charley with contempt, although as it turns out, Charley’s $50-a-week “loan” is the only thing upholding Loman’s finances.

What makes this production so unforgettable, I think, is that it keeps raising more questions than it answers.

Has Loman always been mentally ill, or did his delusions grow out of his disappointments in life? Did his indiscretions really deprive Biff of the ambition to make something of himself, or was Biff always going to be a loser? Was Linda really so supportive of her husband or, in 1949, was she a woman who just made the best of bad choices?

APT doesn’t have a curtain. The stage goes dark at the end of the play and then the lights come up for the curtain call. The night we saw “Death of a Salesman,” the audience was already on its feed applauding by the time the lights came back on.