Death of a Salesman
When reviewing Death of a Salesman, there is a temptation to simply discuss the performers and not the play itself. After all, Arthur Miller's play is considered a classic, required reading for high school students across the country. But the 50th anniversary revival, currently playing at the Ahmanson, is not the same play we remember from high school. We may remember a play about Willy Loman, a salesman in the 1940s who lost his job when he got too old to go on the road. We may remember a line or two from the play ("Attention must be paid!") and the essay we wrote about it ("Willy Loman and the Failed Promise of the American Dream"). In high school, we thought the message of the play was to not buy into the old "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" philosophy (which we didn't buy into anyway), and the lesson to be learned was to not fire old people just because they got old. We got A's on our essays but we didn't have a clue what this play was really about.
The current revival, directed by Robert Falls, corrects our misapprehensions. Rather than focussing the story on Loman as salesman, it focusses on Loman as human being, and therefore finds the universality of the play. What matters isn't whether Loman ever netted $170 per week in commissions as he claims, but rather that he is so caught up in his own hype, he actually believes it. Similarly unimportant is Willy's sons' half-baked plan to sell sporting equipment; the relevance is that they have no reasonable means to achieve their goal. Countless pop psychologists today preach that we should "follow our dream." They weren't around when Miller wrote Death of a Salesman; but he is speaking to them just the same. Numerous references in the play that seemed dated when we first read it are now timely allegories. When Willy is unable to stop a reel-to-reel tape recorder from playing, he brings to mind everyone we have seen who has been flummoxed by new technology. When he begs his boss to keep him on at $50 a week so he can pay his bills, he recalls everyone who has been downsized. Willy Loman doesn't have to be a traveling salesman; he could be working for a failing dot-com.
This is not to say that the play is simply about employment. It is about parents and children, and all the guilt, spite, love, hate, pride and pity that makes up the emotional baggage carried by two generations. When Biff Loman finally realizes that he isn't the man Willy built him up to be, and concludes that he is, instead, a failure just like his father, the resulting confrontation is heartbreaking. In order for Biff to have a chance at any kind of success, he must tell his father the truth, despite the devastating consequences of such brutal honesty.
The effectiveness of the play is, of course, attributable to the quality of the production. The entire cast of this production, particularly the three leads, wonderfully delivers the goods. Brian Dennehy gives a brilliant portrayal of a Willy Loman who has been repeatedly beaten down by life. The physical elements of his performance are so dead-on, his actions are more rewarding to watch than his facial expressions. The face still belongs to Brian Dennehy, but the body is all Willy Loman. Ron Eldard's Biff is an excellent foil for him, effectively running the gamut from the boy who took his father's adoration as a given, to the young man who discovers both their lives were lies, yet feels he owes it to his father to make one attempt at honest communication. Elizabeth Franz instills Willy's long-suffering wife with a powerful dignity. Compared to Willy, her frame looks fragile, but her Linda Loman knows what is best for her family and has the strength to demand it. Dennehy and Franz won Tonys for their performances on Broadway, as did Director Robert Falls. The show also won the Tony for Best Revival, and deservedly so. This is simply a production where everything works. This is not a tired old production of a fifty-year-old play, but a vibrant production that demonstrates just how much life there is left in this classic. Attention must be paid.
Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre, Gordon Davidson, Artistic Director/Producer, David Richenthal, Jujamcyn Theaters, Allan S. Gordon, Fox Theatricals, in association with Jerry Frankel and Robert Cole, present the Goodman Theatre Production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Scenic design by Mark Wendland; costume design by Birgit Rattenborg Wise; lighting design by Michael Philippi; original music/sound design by Richard Woodbury; casting by Bernard Telsey Casting, Tara Lonzo; production stage managers Joseph Drummond and Mary K Klinger; technical supervision by Gene O'Donovan. Directed by Robert Falls.
Willy Loman - Brian Dennehy
Runs through November 5, 2000 at the Ahmanson Theatre. Reviewed October 17, 2000.