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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Dowling's Death of a Salesman at Guthrie is Miller at tragic best

Death of a Salesman
Adam Greer (Happy), Peter Michael Goetz (Willy Loman) and Matthew Greer (Biff)
People who relate near-death experiences describe a brilliant light at the end of a tunnel of darkness. Just such brilliance falls like a stripe across the black void of the huge Guthrie stage, as women's underwear salesman Willy Loman drags, exhausted, into his sleeping Brooklyn home in the small hours, a battered suitcase in each hand.

Like an abyss, death stalks the dark corners of director Joe Dowling's powerful Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, even during its lively flashback scenes to earlier times. The production's mesmeric staging and excellent acting speak of the same profound empathy for Miller's work that was so evident in Dowling's fine 2002 All My Sons.

Since he became artistic director of the Guthrie nine years ago, Dowling has gained a reputation for directing plays, from A Midsummer Night's Dream to Pride and Prejudice, as populist crowd-pleasers. Audiences have loved it. But for me, it's rewarding to revisit Dowling's deep side, as he interprets the work of a playwright with whom he seems to have an affinity.

One small doubt niggles me. Just as All My Sons was destined to play in Dowling's home turf of Dublin, so Salesman is destined to go to this year's Dublin Theatre Festival. Does Dowling direct differently when he knows his work has an Irish audience? I hope this is not so, for it would raise unsettling questions about his perception of an American audience.

Set in the late 1940s, after WW II, Salesman tells of 63 year old Willy Loman, who has hawked his employer's goods around New England for 30 years. He used to be successful and lauded, but business has changed since the war and left him behind. He can no longer make the payments on his mortgage, insurance, the failing refrigerator and his worn out Studebaker. Willy believes in the American Dream, that if you work hard, success and prosperity will follow. He is ambitious for his two ineffectual sons, Biff and Happy, and has taught them the illusion of success, rather than the real skills that underpin it. Willy begins to crack under the strain and teeters between the present and a past that is slippery with denial. He talks often to his absent brother Ben, a self-made man, whom Willy has idealized as an icon. What Willy longs for is to regain the love and respect of his beloved first son, Biff, and to escape from failure.

As Willy enters in the beam of light, Richard Hoover's brush-stroke set pieces of two bedrooms slide forward with him, out of darkness. The rooms, with their scrim walls stretched over skimpy frames, feel as gauzy as memory, as temporary as life. Telephone wires loop overhead in this declining neighborhood, and Mathew Reinert's clever lighting keeps the audience on track with whether Willy is in the present moment, or in an acutely-remembered past.

Sometimes, both the present and the past collide on stage and Goetz absolutely carries a poignant but funny scene in which Willy is playing cards with his neighbor Charley at the kitchen table. He switches between two conversations, one with the shadowy figure of the imagined Ben, and the other with Charley, who cannot follow what is going on. In superb acting, Goetz lives in Willy, as though the character were an extension of himself.

Goetz is matched by Helen Carey's heartbreaking Linda Loman; she knows how fragile her husband is, but she is unable to help this man she so loves. A tender energy flickers between Carey and Goetz when they are on stage together, so that each adds to the other's playing. It happened in All My Sons, and it happens, here - in spades.

The acting in Salesman is deep. Brothers Mathew and Adam Greer play Biff and Happy, much as I imagined the Loman's two sons to be. Wayne A. Evanson is a strong presence as Charley and, dressed all in white, Stephen Yoakam swishes on stage as Ben, a self-satisfied poseur of a man. Sally Wingert, Bill McCallum and Tracey Malone play smaller roles with signature panache. Three new graduates from the Guthrie/University of Minnesota acting program round out the cast: Santino Fontana, Carena Crowell and Mathew Amendt.

The emptiness of a failed dream informs every aspect of this Salesman, and Dowling draws bravura performances from his actors as he goes deep into the tragedy that is at the flawed heart of likeable Willy Loman. Among many fine directorial touches, I appreciated the two suitcases that Willy dumps down at the play's opening. They stay on stage throughout, lit by a low spot, but are gone in the closing scene. The suitcases echo Willy's statement to Linda, "I feel temporary about myself."

Death of a Salesman August 14 - September 19, 2004. Tuesdays - Saturdays 7:30 p.m., Sundays 7:00 p.m. Matinees on selected Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays 1:00 p.m. $14 - $49. The Guthrie Theater, 725, Vineland Place, Minneapolis. Tickets: 612-377-2224, or Toll Free 877-44 STAGE. www.guthrietheater.org.


Photo: T. Charles Erickson



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Elizabeth Weir



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