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Avi Hoffman discusses Yiddish take on Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman

Avi Hoffman returns to the role of Willy Loman in the Ashkenaz Festival’s production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

Arielle Hoffman

As part of this year's Ashkenaz Festival at Harbourfront Centre (Aug. 30 to Sept. 5), a Yiddish production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (Toyt Fun a Seylsman) will be presented with English surtitles at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. The Canadian premiere features members of the original off-Broadway cast from 2015, including Avi Hoffman, who earned a best actor Drama Desk nomination for his portrayal of Willy Loman. The Globe and Mail spoke with Hoffman from New York.

We assume that most theatregoers are familiar with the traditional production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. What does this Yiddish production bring, other than the different language?

It's a new interpretation, both physically and spiritually, and, in a way, emotionally. And certainly culturally. Death of a Salesman has always been done with multilevel sets as an all-American iconic theatre piece about the pursuit of the American Dream. In this Yiddish version, we don't have a big set. We have a table and four chairs, and that's it. We deal with visuals, we deal with lighting, we deal with sound. But the entire production revolves around a dinner table.

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David Mamet in 2005 wrote that Death of a Salesman isn't universal, that it's Jewish. I imagine you agree?

In doing this play and doing the research and talking to Arthur Miller's sister, the actress Joan Copeland, we've learned that Miller intended this to be about his Uncle Manny, who was a Yiddish-speaking immigrant from the old country. He committed suicide. And so this story is no longer just a generic American story. This is now about a refugee from persecution, in Russia or Poland. He's struggling to pursue a life in America, the golden land. He's trying to make a living, and he is unsuccessful. And by adding the refugee immigrant element, it adds a tragic pathos to a story all theatregoers know and love.

You mentioned Miller's sister. What was her reaction to the Yiddish production?

She came up to me after a performance with tears in her eyes and told me this is what Arthur always intended the show to be. She thought it was the greatest production of the play she had ever seen.

The famous line, "Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person," sounds Yiddish. Any other dog whistles like that in the script?

Absolutely. The woman asks, "When will you be back?" And I say, "Oh, two weeks, about." In English you'd say, "I'll be back in about two weeks." It's quite fascinating to see that Arthur Miller, intentionally or not, really wrote this play hearing the Yiddish sounds, the Yiddish grammar, the Yiddish emphasis, the Yiddish milieu.

How do we see the Jewishness of Willy Loman?

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He says, "See, I'm different. I don't look like everybody else. People look at me. They walk by me as if they can't see me. As if they're making fun of me. As if they're laughing at me." Well, why would they be laughing at Willy Loman, who's all-American, just like everybody else?

But wouldn't he be like everybody else, a Jew in Brooklyn in 1949?

Yes, but he's a travelling salesman. His area is New England. Hartford, Providence, Boston. Those aren't Jewish areas. It's all goyim, and he's trying to sell them whatever it is he's selling. It makes him a sympathetic character, and in some ways pathetic. That is not the English-American version.

Can we say that the Jewish immigrant dream was to be seen as American?

That's right. And that's so much stronger than the American Dream, which is to be successful and make a lot of money. They want to be accepted in a society that didn't really want to accept them. Certainly not in 1949, when this play takes place. It took a long time for the Jew to assimilate enough to be accepted in American society.

What's your take on Donald Trump, with his isolationist policies, and his wall-building and his extreme vetting of immigrants?

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I'm not interested in getting in a political discussion. But you bring up a very important point. That the essence of the immigrant experience in America, in Europe, in Canada, has not really changed.

We still today, in 2016, are looking at immigrants with an attitude of "Oh, they're different; we have to keep them out." We're living in a world now that does not want to accept these refugees.

Death of a Salesman (Toyt Fun a Seylsman) runs Aug. 31 to Sept. 10, at Studio Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts. $30 to $36. 5040 Yonge St., 855-985-2787 or tocentre.com.

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About the Author

Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter with The Globe and Mail. More

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