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Hoffman, Garfield set standard for 'Salesman'

Fresh off of opening night, the cast of Death of a Salesman conveyed the most heart-wrenching emotion that I have ever seen in one place. “Captivating” and “compelling” are words often used in my reviews, but director Mike Nichols deserves far more exclusive words and praise.

With it only their second night of official shows, I wonder to myself how the company can produce such sentiment every night. I have no doubts of their abilities. Death of a Salesman premiered at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York, March 15, and will run through June 2.

With his adult sons, Biff (Andrew Garfield) and Happy (Finn Wittrock) back living at home searching for careers, the time-defeated Willy Loman (Philip Seymour Hoffman) shows clear signs of living past his prime in the sales world. A shuffle in his step and extensive memories of Biff?s high school years and conversations with people from his past are just some of the indicators that Willy?s mind is somewhere else.

Though Willy looked forward to Biff?s return home, his son?s presence only brings out tension and temper. Silently supporting in the background, Willy?s wife Linda (Linda Emond) pleads that Biff puts aside grudges to live in harmony with his lost father. Willy?s life, Linda says, depends on this.

Switches between the past in Willy?s mind and the present reveal how the young, athletic, confident Biff?s transitioned into a sober man with a lost cause. The recollections allow insight to Willy?s mind — the struggle to maintain his pride in a life of failure and incompetence.

Having seen Miller?s original production of Death of a Salesman as a high school student in 1949, Nichols chose to recreate this original vision to an extent. This decision included the original set, constructed back up onstage to complete what Miller intended to present. He faithfully followed the script, story and staging. A great addition was the music written by Alex North for the original production. These Arthur Miller-approved details assured the audience that they were seeing what needed to be seen.

Where Death of a Salesman stood alone in production, however, was in its unparalleled acting. Sure, many great actors have filled the shoes of Willy, Biff and Linda over the years, but Hoffman, Emond, Garfield and the entire revival cast put a unique take onstage.

Hoffman let his temper fly. His Willy conveyed a sense of resistance and reality. Though he would certainly become lost in his own world, he was also aware of his deterioration, and desperately tried to deny it.

The great thing about Hoffman?s performance is that I wasn?t looking at Philip Seymour Hoffman. I was looking at Willy Loman. With his character a good 20 years beyond his own age, Hoffman took to Willy?s lost cause, with the aged exhaustion and slow mannerisms. All in all, this lead set the tone for the entire show with intensity and power, right from the first defeated gasp of, “Oh boy, oh boy.”

Faithfully beside Hoffman, Emond was like a beam of light on the stage. Miller wrote an exquisite character with Linda. Her monologues are perhaps the most thought-provoking in the show, and Emond presented them with strength. Though these were not slow and mournful as I expected them to be, the lines were even more heartbreaking said in such a realistic tone. When it came time for Linda to let loose, Emond was no-nonsense. Without her character’s transparency, the other roles would have far less meaning.

When it comes to transparency, though, Garfield takes the prize. Requested to play Biff, he gave his gift of emotional acting to Salesman. Throughout the whole show, Garfield allows the audience to watch Biff’s powerful transformation. He nailed the cocky football toss, and wore his letter sweater with pride. He kept the crowd eager to solve the mystery of his bitterness. What Biff felt, we felt.

Most importantly, Garfield commanded the whole theater to hold its breath. It was nearly unbearable to witness his utter devastation with Willy in Boston. Alone onstage, hearing life-changing words offstage, Garfield stood with his mind racing. When his silence transformed into violent sobs and shouts, it was impossible not to feel the emotion. I could hardly listen to him cry out, “Dad,” and “Don’t touch me, you — liar!” with his face dripping. With the tears from his sobs trickling to the floor, it was clear that Garfield felt the pain deeply. The whole cast joined in with this heavy feeling in the climax argument.

In an interview in the Wall Street Journal, Garfield noted that Salesman is a painful play to live in for a period of time, but that he is learning a lot from the experience. In another, he commented that it is quite a lot of emotion to reveal every night. By fully enveloping himself in Biff, Garfield — and the whole cast — made the play superior.

The show, in its entirety, is satisfying and full. It is real. Generally, a live show can evoke far more emotion than one onscreen. Salesman did not take advantage of this by giving a halfhearted performance. Rather, each actor lived in their character’s shoes to the fullest. Appearing for the bows after an extremely sobering requiem scene, the actors bowed with straight, grave faces. They stayed in character right to the finish, and did not ruin the emotion by letting up the tone with smiles.

This is not a play to watch; it is a play to feel. The actors don’t even always need to words to get their points across. Sometimes the loudest moments were the silences. Their faces and movements did all the talking in those pregnant pauses where tension seized the atmosphere, such as when Biff commands his father to stop telling Linda to shut up.

Writing this play, Miller did not waste any lines. He made every word necessary, so each actor was vital to the show. I could spend pages praising each cast member, though there is not enough room to mention the importance of Happy’s craving for attention, Charley’s (Bill Camp) mercy, Bernard’s (Fran Kranz) humility, Ben’s (John Glover) mysticism and Howard’s (Remy Auberjonois) realism.

Going into the show, I was wishing for a chance to see it twice: first, to get my fill of star-gazing, and second, to catch everything else going on. I didn’t want my admiration for the actors to get in the way; I didn’t want to be staring at Garfield when Emond gave her incredible monologue.

But from the moment that multiple people were onstage, I could only find myself looking at the subject. In that way, Nichols’s staging was brilliant. He arranged the actors and lighting so that the audience’s eyes were drawn to whoever should get the attention. This was a detail, though subliminal, that I was extremely grateful for. As result, I got my fill of Garfield and Hoffman, without missing a second of anyone else’s lines.

Just having read this play in English, I couldn’t stop making analyses, and noticing potent details. However, I will never be able to watch the 1985 Dustin Hoffman version again. While it is fantastic, I never want this Broadway revival to be replaced in my mind. This Death of a Salesman sets the new standard for the play. Hoffman knows man with an intense, raw performance. Garfield knows emotion with heart-wrenching vulnerability.

Nichols’s incredible production is surely unparalleled, and I expect to see it sweeping the Tony awards.

For more drama reviews, read the March 14 article, Jonas proves Broadway talent in ‘How to Succeed’.

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