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A CurtainUp Review
Death of a Salesman
By Allan Wallach
For Elyse Sommer's Second Thoughts on the production go go here
As soon as Willy Loman appears in the doorway of his Brooklyn house lugging his sample cases filled with empty dreams, sections of the house separate and drift apart, suggesting the Loman family itself, whose members seem to move in separate orbits.
This striking initial image of Robert Fall's powerful 50th anniversary production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman introduces us to a production that strips away notions that we're meant to view Willy's downfall as a condemnation of society. At its wounded heart this is a play about a family adrift. Even more than the 1984 Broadway revival starring Dustin Hoffman, it leaves us pondering the explosive mix of love, contempt and seething anger that at times pulls the Loman family together and at others hurls them apart.
Although this was true of Elia Kazan's 1949 staging, the many articles and essays it inspired placed the emphasis on Willy's skewed values ("Be liked and you will never want"). Miller's indictment of those values, however, was never as persuasive as he seemed to believe. The play, too, was burdened then by the weighty question - prompted by Miller's own shifting ruminations - of whether a tragedy could have a common man as its flawed hero.
The famous lines that figured so prominently in those long-ago debates (notably Linda Loman's "Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person" and Willy's own "You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away - a man is not a piece of fruit!" are still present. Yet, for the most part, Fall's brilliant rethinking of the play - his production has arrived on Broadway 50 years to the day from the original opening on Feb. 10, 1949 -- makes them less portentous now; they're consumed by the ferocity of the emotions that surround them. This may be the angriest Salesman I've ever seen.
At its core is the mercurial acting of Brian Dennehy, recreating his role in last year's production at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. His Willy has a salesman's quick, eager smile and expansiveness, yet he is never far from the rage and bewilderment that keep him shambling between the dismal present and the hallucinatory past. Even Dennehy's sheer size works for him; when he sags, his massive body seems to implode.
The other outstanding performance is that of Elizabeth Franz, who was also in the Goodman Theater production. She catches every glint of Linda Loman's love for her husband and fierce anger at her sons, Biff and Happy, over their casually thoughtless treatment of Willy. (During the curtain calls at the preview I attended, Franz still seemed stricken by Linda's sad and baffled graveside speech that ends the play.)
There is fine work as well by several others in the cast, especially Kevin Anderson as the embittered and hopelessly lost Biff. The final showdown between Biff and Willy, in which rage is somehow transmuted into groping love, is beautifully handled by both actors. Also good are Ted Koch, as Happy, Allen Hamilton, as Uncle Ben, the debonair success-image of Willy's hallucinations, and Howard Witt as Charley, although Witt can't overcome the awkwardness of Charley's famous eulogy ("Nobody dast blame this man").
One of the production's significant departures is the shifting modular scenic design by Mark Wendland. Although quite different from Jo Mielziner's skeletal multilevel set in the original production, the scenery is equally efficient in the abrupt transitions between the present and a past that's filtered through Willy's tormented mind. Through all these changes, Fall's masterly direction keeps the play focused on Willy and the other members of the Loman family as they move uncomprehendingly toward destruction.