In Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, a “liked” man named Willy Loman (played by Michael Bayler for the MU Theater Department’s 2016 revival) is nearing the end of his rope. He has spent over half of his existence trying to “sell, sell, sell,” but he can’t help but think he missed a great deal. He often thinks back to his brother Ben (Aaron Scully), connoisseur of worldly adventure, and when his brother said yes to a deal the “liked” man said no to. He also thinks back to glory days of his kids Biff Loman (Samuel DeMuria) and Harold “Happy” Loman (Jacob Smith) before they each wonder, in the present moment, “where did we go wrong?”
The majority of Death of a Salesman takes place within the confines of the Loman household in Brooklyn, New York. On stage, three specific rooms of the house are presented in view of the audience: The bedroom of Willy and his wife Linda Loman (Jennie Pardoe), Biff and Happy’s bedroom, as well as the kitchen. Stage left of the kitchen is an open doorway, meant to represent the front door of the house. Biff and Happy’s room is built above and behind the kitchen on stage to give an impression that it is “upstairs” and “above the kitchen.” Between the kitchen and doorway, there is a small staircase to complete this image. On stage right sits the front end of Willy’s car, distant from the bedrooms and the kitchen. Behind it is two chairs (meant to represent the front seats of the car) and a back storage area (meant to represent the trunk.) In such a confined space, the scenic design (led by Brad M. Carlson for the production) helps create a space on stage that fills the area and gives a convincing impression of a 1940s apartment in Brooklyn. In one of the first scenes of the show, Happy and Biff are awakened by their parents in the middle of the night, especially Willy’s loud external monologues. Happy and Biff each listen in from their bedroom at the top of the stairwell. Biff and Happy stir awake and begin conversing with each other about now, the future and glory days in the past. Despite being ten feet away by estimation, both the actors and the set are able to create a convincing space on stage. For another scene in the first act, the actors make use of the front of the stage to draw the audience’s attention toward them and not to the set behind them. During a flashback in Willy’s mind, the Loman family as well as Biff and Happy’s neighbor Bernard (Emmanuel Llorente) act out a moment from right before Biff was set to graduate high school. For example, Happy goes to the back of the car (which hasn’t moved through transition from reality to flashback) to retrieve the punching bag Willy got for him and Biff. Also, when Biff has to call out to his friends in the cellar waiting for him, he runs to stage right to yell off-stage towards his friends, making use of the limited space available to him.
The play opens with Willy coming home late at night after a business trip with Linda asking him how it went. Behind the stage are black and white projections of New York City brownstone apartments and streets. Given the context of the play, they add an antiquated aura and historical sense-of-place to the events on stage. But when the play dives into Willy’s thoughts as well as flashbacks to the past, the projections on the screens change to signify this difference. The black and white images slowly fade into close-up images of green leaves and branches, possibly signifying a safe forest in the refuge of Willy’s mind. One of the most prominent instances of this is when the audience witnesses the first flashback inside Willy’s mind, when he returns home from a previous business trip and Happy and Biff have just finished washing his car. The comforting forest behind the actor’s seems to capitalize on setting the mood that this is a happy time in Willy’s life, a time he wishes he could go back to.
With Willy’s (Bayler) fragile mental state comes the problem of portraying flashbacks on-stage in-between scenes occurring in the present time. Scenic and projection design led by Brad M. Carlson wisely sets apart these moments using large projection screens behind the set. Willy would begin a soliloquy of spoken thoughts as the projection would change behind him from New York City brownstone buildings to serene, bright green leaves as a flashback is acted out on stage.