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NRT Kills It (‘It’ Being The American Dream) with ‘Death of a Salesman’

“What I like to keep in mind,” I remember my high school English teacher saying, her several bead necklaces jangling as she wrote on the board, “is that he’s Willy Loman. Like, ‘low man.’ Get it?”

The unfortunate protagonist of “Death of a Salesman” is indeed supposed to be the American everyman, and in 1949, the year that Arthur Miller’s arguably best play was first performed, Willy Loman fit that bill measure for measure — according to the audience’s idea of what the American everyman was.

But it’s 2019 now. The middle class has been shrinking for decades, millennial/centennial employment culture eschews decades-long employment at a single firm (a concept of normalcy central to Willy’s character), and — most glaringly of all — we have grown sick and tired of the heterosexual white guy’s ego occupying the dramatic center as if that privileged experience is somehow the essence of American identity. That said: is it really worth your time to go see No Refund Theater’s production of this play?

Hell. Yes. Great art like “Death of a Salesman” always has merit, and when you have the opportunity to see it for free, it’s the equivalent of God/Karma/Fate putting a bullhorn to your ear and shouting, “GO ENRICH YOURSELF WITH CULTURE.”

But I recognize that I’m an English nerd whose rhapsodizing about literary drama should probably be taken with a note of skepticism on your part, so please allow me to take the opportunity to convince you that No Refund Theater’s production has managed something special here.

For the uninitiated (which is to say, those of you who didn’t have it on your high school English syllabus), “Death of a Salesman” tells the story of, well, a loser. A loser and his family, to be more precise. The Lomans are a Rockwell painting gone bad: a braggadocios father with nothing to show for it, an equivocal and enabling wife, and two all-American boys full of narcissism and unearned confidence.

To watch No Refund Theater’s production of this show is to be brought directly (and uncomfortably) into the very living room of the Loman clan. Gerry Stamatelatos, the student director, managed to find the perfect players for every part.

Joe O’Dowd, skinny and slump-shouldered, is an unimpeachable Willy, tired and desperate and endlessly selfish. Hannah Kelly plays an infuriatingly good Linda Loman, eliciting real audience compassion even as she upholds the bombastic ego of her husband. Happy and Biff, played by Sean Kelly and Zach Szmerekovsky respectively, act as twin and opposite reflections on what it means to be brought up in the consumerist household. Sean Kelly’s Happy is exactly as thuggish and shallow as Miller intended, and Szmerekovsky brings a gale-force of complex emotion to the role of the troubled eldest son.

No, America isn’t what it was in the days of Willy Loman. But we are college students, and we know all too well what toxic expectations can do. Watching this show, I found myself asking questions about the patriarchy of America, the narcissism of the business world, the insistence that selling yourself as something you aren’t will somehow bring happiness rather than a terrible fate — questions, you will notice, that have only grown more pronounced in the discussion of what it means to be an American in the 21st century.

Who among us feels completely at ease with the fetishization of stuffed resumes and being liked in the pre-professional setting of college? Don’t we all have at least a twinge of moral doubt when we try to play the parts that are expected of us? Doesn’t everyone, on some level, wonder just what it means to be an authentic human being?

This show leans into these uncertainties and will make you feel uncomfortable, and that’s the highest compliment I can give to a production of “Death of a Salesman.” The actors are acting, yes, but the metatheatrical inauthenticity of their characters brings to light the sham of the American Dream. It’s a college play, but the team at No Refund Theater has pulled together to create a small, sad reflection on American life with seemingly bottomless emotional poignancy. Crying is a very real possibility at this show, and you will walk out with deeply unsettling questions rattling around your head…which is, of course, the point of good art.

Go do yourself a favor and see “Death of a Salesman” this week at 9 p.m. in the HUB Flex Theater, Friday, March 15 or Saturday, March 16.

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About the Author

Steve Schneible

Recovering Bethlehem, PA native. English & Psych student, PSU SHC class of 2021. Paterno Fellow. Narcissism Hour Showrunner. Kalliope Fiction Coordinator. Earnest and usually good-natured milquetoast. Baby Onward State contributor. Email: [email protected] Moderately amusing Twitter account: @steve_schneibs

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