Two men have known each other for years, lived next to each other in a duplex house in Yonkers, New York, and shared a common wall in said house. Little happened in the two households that they did not know about. One man has been a traveling salesman all of his adult life and the other a successful businessman.
Director Greg Gasman has brought together a cast of local actors for a timeless classic, "Death of a Salesman" by Arthur Miller, which will premiere this week in Bemidji.
The story is about Willy Lohman, a man in his early 60s who is past his prime but does not realize it because those around him ignore his inability to connect with the reality of his life.
The play spans from the 1940s to 1950s. It is considered to be the quintessential American saga of a man defeated by life, but the question remains: Did life defeat him or did he defeat himself.
"Death of a Salesman," a production of KG Entertainment, opens this week in the Black Box Theater of the Bangsberg Fine Arts Complex at Bemidji State University.
The revival will be a limited run of six shows starting at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 18-19, and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 20. Performances also are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, March 24-26.
The Black Box Theater is located downstairs in Bangsberg, located at the intersection of 14th Street Northeast and Birchmont Drive Northeast.
Tickets are $10 for general admission and $8 for seniors and students and on sale now at Harmony Natural Food Co-op, Wild Hare Bistro and Coffee Shop, Brigid's Cross Irish Pub and Restaurant and at the door the day of performance. Seating is limited and the show is not recommended for children in grade school.
The cast includes Willy (played by retired school principal Tom Kusler), who is the patriarch of the Lohman family and struggles to support his wife, Linda (Ann Cease), a stay-at-home housewife. Linda remains at home even though their two sons have long since left home. Biff (Jon Mansk) was a football star in high school who won several college scholarships. Happy (Brett Cease), the younger son, works in a department store somewhere in Manhattan and lives on his own.
Both boys are home at the behest of their mother and are temporarily sharing their old bedroom. Perhaps Linda sees the decline in Willy's mental health or perhaps she thinks having the boys back home will bolster Willy's sense of self.
Perhaps Miller was describing the onset of Alzheimer's, a disease not yet common in the medical community, much less to the public. Willy's oft-repeated exclamation, "The woods are burning," tells the story of a frantic man, befuddled and seeking a solution for his pain. A pain he does not name but still recognizes as he wanders in and out of reality, confused and tormented by his past, choices he made and opportunities he did not recognize.
After the success of "Twelve Angry Men" with KB Productions, Kusler started looking for another memorable role for the last couple of years."
"I wasn't able to come up with something so I called my son who works for Paramount Pictures in California. He is into theater and said that he thought a good role for me would be Willy Lohman in 'Death of a Salesman,'" Kusler said. "I can empathize with Willy; he's trying to live the American dream, but he's going about it in the wrong way. He is frustrated in his ideals; his sons did not turn out the way he thought they would. I just feel for the guy. This is a guy who is losing it and his only salvation is trying to live through his son Biff again. The other son Happy is minimally involved and Willy throws him a compliment once in awhile."
Ann Cease, as Linda Lohman, has come back to theater after a hiatus of quite a few years based on the fun she had in Saaren's Production of "Side by Side by Sondheim" last fall when the entire Cease family was involved on stage or on the lights (Brett).
"The family dynamic that Arthur Miller has written is amazing. It is not an era I could have lived in, to be a wife who couldn't always tell the truth and who waits on a husband hand and foot," Ann Cease said. "To me it was a challenge to be this kind of an old-fashioned wife who keeps the ball rolling. It is very interesting to me to see how times have changed. My son Brett has been having a difficult time with the way his character refers to women and says things that Brett would never say in real life. On a brighter side, this is the first time I've been on stage with Brett since Bemidji Community Theater's 'Music Man' in 1995."
Next-door neighbor Charley (Charlie Parsons), presumably Willy's best friend, is financially secure and has a son in law school. Willy is no longer bringing home a paycheck because his job is now strictly commission. Willy meets with Charley in the shared backyard to borrow yet another $50, which he promises to pay back, but Charley knows that his friend will never be able to pay him back.
Parson said he was given the role because Gasman "needed a man of some statue and gravitas."
"I usually get cast as sort of an oafish person and this is the first time I've been cast as a heavy," he said. "Charley is the guy in the background, successful and no bull. Willy lives in fantasy; his dreams are so big that he has begun to believe them himself. His kids refer to me as Uncle Charley, I've known them forever, our boys grew up together. I am a successful businessman who paid off his half of the duplex years ago and Willy is a wage slave who has still to make his final payment. My character sees him as delusional and depressed. Something has to change but yet Willy has not yet found a way to 'get out of the woods.'"
The rest of the cast includes Mike Bredon, K.D. Howells, Danielle Macalester, Ramey Nordby, Reed Olson and Danielle Quick, all of whom have been on stage in Bemidji in different productions.
Cheryl Winnett's attention to detail brings viewers into the story. The set is from the post-war era in a somewhat shabby apartment: a pink chenille bedspread, a metal coffee percolator, 1950s-designed dinner plates, a metal flashlight, boxes of stockings, a darning egg in the sewing basket, wooden clothespins in a flowered clothespin holder, a round laundry basket with handles and Willy's beloved seed packets.
The play is not for young children as it deals with marital infidelity, language that would be offensive today, mental deterioration and suicide.