When Arthur Miller wrote “Death of a Salesman” in 1949, it was close to two decades after author James Truslow Adams had coined the term “the American dream.” Now, nearly 70 years since the legendary playwright wrote about one man’s aspiration for the good life, the phrase — its meaning and attainability — is still a hot topic.
Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning critique of the pursuit of success and material comfort proves its timelessness in the Bay Street Theater presentation of the classic. “It was a title mentioned over and over,” says Tracy Mitchell, executive director of the Sag Harbor playhouse, about the theater company’s selection of the acclaimed drama for this year’s production in its “Literature Live!” series. (The annual program is performed for the general public and as part of the arts in education curriculum geared to local students.)
In the play’s protagonist, Willy Loman, Miller presents a modern tragic hero whose flaw — his misguided perception of the American dream and of himself — determines his ruin.
“The play is about the American dream, but also about family expectations and trying to live up to them,” says Broadway veteran actor David Manis, who portrays the aging traveling salesman. “Willy struggles with the worry that if he doesn’t make it, no one will love or care about him. That feeling is universal.”
To be sure, are we not all, to some extent, salesmen who are trying to impress and to be, in Willy’s words, “well liked”? Willy’s stubborn belief in this superficial version of the dream — that anyone with “personal attractiveness” deserves success — ultimately leads, however, to his inability to accept the disparity between his life and its promise.
“Arthur Miller was thinking of calling the play ‘The Inside of His Head,’ ” says Manis of how the playwright depicts his character’s rapid psychological decline. “Instead of using monologue to relate past events, Willy actually goes there — or at least to his memory of them.”
As an example, the actor points to a scene in which his character, talking to his wife, drifts to thoughts of a woman he had an affair with, as indicated by her seeming to walk through the couple’s home. “Miller famously said there were no flashbacks in the play,” Manis says. “Willy’s mind went on a trip to the hotel. His thought process occurs in the present time.”
Manis says he admires his character for his titanic effort to keep things together. “Willy may not be the nicest or smartest, but I do respect how he is thinking about ‘how can I do this for my son.’ It’s not just agitprop, but also about ways families operate,” Manis says. “That’s what makes it more interesting to me.”
WHAT “Death of a Salesman”
WHEN | WHERE Through Nov. 25, 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturdays, Bay Street Theater, 1 Bay St., Sag Harbor
INFO $20-$55; 631-725-9500, baystreet.org
Take it to the ‘Bridge’
WHAT There was a time when suburban teens created music in their garages with actual drums, guitars and keyboards and not with virtual instruments on their laptops. Gerry Ferretti remembers those days well, channeling the neighborhood jam sessions that were part of his growing up in Massapequa in the ’70s in his original musical “Bridge the Gap,” premiering at Lindenhurst’s South Shore Theatre Experience. The multitalented Ferretti, who wrote the show’s script, music and lyrics, also stars in this tale of four friends who reconnect in midlife and decide to give their childhood dreams of fame and fortune a second shot.
WHEN | WHERE Through Nov. 25, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, South Shore Theatre Experience, 115 S. Wellwood Ave., Lindenhurst
INFO $15, 631-669-0506; southshoretheatre.com