Willy Loman, the central character in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, is having an identity crisis. A 63-year-old traveling salesman, Willy often masks his deep dissatisfaction by overstating his accomplishments or losing himself in flashbacks of years past. His insecurity and detachment from reality aggravate his already-strained relationships with family and friends.
“Willy is trying to accomplish success in life by being a salesman,” says Gary Walters, who will play the character in the Footlight Players’ upcoming production, which runs March 8-24 at Queen Street Playhouse. “And in order to make his life seem much better than it is, he exaggerates. He exaggerates everything, pretty much, to his wife, to his children, to his friends.”
“He’s coming up short in providing for his family, both emotionally and financially,” adds director Thomas Keating.
Willy’s rocky relationship with his eldest son, Biff, is often a point of tension throughout the play. Willy regards Biff, a former star football player who dropped out of high school, as a disappointment due to his lack of achievements. From Willy’s perspective, Biff hasn’t lived up to expectations, but his criticism reveals something deeper.
“Through the course of the play, as it unfolds, we realize the shortcomings that Biff might show or that we might feel are shortcomings of Biff, they are all a direct cause that we can attribute to Willy,” Keating says. “So all the angst and anger and resentment that Willy expresses to Biff are sort of, you know, in turn reflected in himself and the shortcomings of him being a father. So then Willy basically blames himself, but he’s never willing to admit that.”
Walters has a similar view of the father-son relationship in that Biff’s inadequacies make Willy more aware of his own.
“He’s kind of a guy that has lived his life in search of a dream of what he perceives to be the ideal life, largely lived through [Biff],” he says. “I guess you could say he attempts, early on in the play, in the story, to live this ideal life vicariously through the accomplishments of Biff in that Biff is a football star, a great athlete.”
Despite Willy’s tendency to often take his family and friends for granted, they continue to care for him rather than cut ties. The reason why these characters remain so steadfast in their support of Willy, Walters says, has been a central question for him.
“And so what I’ve discovered, I think, in looking at some of Arthur Miller’s interviews, I think Willy was very well-liked by the people he worked with, his friends, and family,” Walters says. “He was always lively, a great storyteller, and fun to be around. And in one interview of Miller’s I saw, Miller commented that everybody in the play likes Willy except Willy.”
Walters speculates that Willy’s transformation into who he is now — often unreasonable and angry — could be due to an onset of dementia.
“He quite often is, in the course of the play, hallucinating different scenes or flashing back to different things that happened in the past,” Walters says. “At the same time, he’s carrying on a conversation or experiencing things in real time. He’s frequently irrational and lashes out at the people he loves and quite often forgets where he is. These are all things I’ve witnessed in extended family that went through this with Alzheimer’s.”
Walters’ interpretation only adds another layer to a complex character who is full of gray areas.
“He tried really hard, but he made some mistakes,” Walters says. “I hope audiences enjoy and can understand the complexities of all the relationships between Willy, his friends, and his family.”