Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 9, 2022
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. Directed by Miranda Cromwell. Scenic and co-costume design by Anna Fleischle. Co-costume design by Sarita Fellows. Lighting design by Jen Schriever . Sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman. Composer Femi Temowo. Hair and wig design by Nikiya Mathis. Associate director TaNisha Fordham. Music Coordinator John Miller. Cast: Wendell Pierce, Sharon D Clarke, Khris Davis, McKinley Belcher III, Stephen Stocking, Lynn Hawley, Delaney Williams, André De Shields, Blake DeLong, Chelsea Lee Williams, and Grace Porter.
What I love about this production, apart from the all-around exceptionally fine performances under Miranda Cromwell's sharp-as-a-well-stropped-razor direction, is the ease with which all of the characters don the mantle of Miller's 1949 Pulitzer Prize winning play. Never for one moment does anything feel forced as Willy Loman (Wendell Pierce, a magnificent crumbling giant), his wife Linda (Sharon D Clarke, proud, loyal, loving and heartbreaking), and their sons Biff (Khris Davis) and Happy (McKinley Belcher III) are depicted here, a family of Black Americans.
Consider some of Miller's lines and just try not to squirm when you hear them now. There is the advice Willy's brother Ben (André De Shields, majestic and sophisticated as always) gives to him: "Get out of these cities, they're full of talk and time payments and courts of law." The many times the word "boy" is tossed about. The fact that Willy's white neighbor is named "Charley," as in "Mister Charley."
The frisson strikes even with lines that are meant to be innocuous. How can we not flinch when we hear, "we get a nice rope," and "hang," and "swingin' there under those branches," all in close proximity to one another. True, it is Willy who says these words, and in a context that is far from the implication, but, yeah. Or how about when we see how a stage direction plays out, especially as humiliatingly as it is enacted here, when Willy's supercilious and much younger white boss drops his cigarette lighter and Willy feels obliged to bend down and pick it up for him. Or when we watch as Happy is being led to the back room in the restaurant where he, Biff, and Willy are meeting up to celebrate Biff's "successful" business meeting?
But in addition to the reconceptualization of the Lomans, the thing that has always allowed for multiple interpretations is the fact that when we first meet Willy, he is already in the throes of dementia. Indeed, across the years, that has been the most consistent piece of a puzzle which leaves us guessing about the history of this damaged but, here at least, resolutely unbroken man.
The impact on Happy and Biff of growing up in this family, where a firmly rooted belief in the "American dream," and rosy visions of a better tomorrow have always dominated, is unrelated to Willy's current state of mind. Both of the sons are in their 30s, well past an age when they should be settled into careers and/or with families of their own. Their own sad story is theirs to play out.
In some ways, they are chips off the old block. Yet, consider that Willy has held down a long and steady job, has built a life for his family despite having had an absentee father as a role model, and lives in a house for which the mortgage is about to be paid off. That he had his head filled with pipe dreams by his brother ("When I walked into the jungle, I was seventeen. When I walked out, I was twenty-one, and, by God, I was rich!") has certainly affected his propensity for avoiding and embellishing the truth.
But what we get to see of Willy is this man at his worst, a King Lear of sorts, bent if not completely broken, whom his wife Linda is attempting to hold together with the only thing she has to give, an unwavering love. She has hitched her wagon to him for decades, and she is not about to give up on him when he needs her the most. Not even her sons will stand between her and Willy: "I love him. He's the dearest man in the world to me, and I won't have anyone making him feel unwanted, and low and blue." That is Linda's truth, and it is unshaken by her full knowledge that the Willy she has known and loved is no longer the Willy who stands before her now.
Throughout, Wendell Pierce and Sharon D Clarke are giving extraordinary performances in a play that runs over three hours and that never lets up. The rest of the cast is also excellent, as are the creative elements: Anna Fleischle's minimalist and abstract set design; the costumes created by Fleischle and her co-designer Sarita Fellows (André De Shields in silvery white is a knockout); and the underlay of blues music composed by Femi Temowo. All in all, you are unlikely ever to see a finer production of Death of a Salesman than this one.