Arthur Miller’s masterpiece, Death of a Salesman, is back on Broadway, featuring the first all-Black Loman family, with a first-rate cast giving some truly powerful dramatic performances.
Death of a Salesman has long been in danger if being dismissed as a classic, relegated to required reading lists in drama schools and dissected and analyzed beyond recognition in undergrad English courses across the United States. In revival after revival, however, it thrives. It is still the epitome of the tragedy of the common man, and remains a fine vehicle for actors, with several juicy parts and a climax that never fails to land a gut punch.
The cast is headed by Wendell Pierce as 60-year-old Willy, the lowest man on the corporate ladder who has hitched his wagon to a collapsing star. He captures all of Willy, from his most misguided, shallow and often irritating moments, to those optimistic, dreamy, sad and well-meaning ones. Willy is a tired old man, not a big man, but then “a small man can be just as exhausted as a great man,” and Pierce’s performance ensures that attention is paid to this past-his-sell-by-date soul.
Willy lives in his own personal time warp, shifting from the past to the present back again, always keeping an eye on the future. At the same time, his grasp on reality is not that strong, if it ever was. As Linda Loman says: He never made a lot of money. Ironically, he belittles his son Happy (McKinley Belcher III) for only making $70 a week, but the most Willy every makes in the play at least is about that much, But then Willy always seems to be dealing in fuzzy numbers where money is concerned.
Khris Davis plays 34-year old, Biff, another lost soul and one of the more underrated parts in American theater—John Malkovich skyrocketed to stardom with a powerful performance in the role in the 1984 production starring Dustin Hoffman. Biff is pretty low on pretty much any ladder he’s stepped on, and Davis nails his epiphanic moment: his “I’m a dime a dozen” speech that just takes your breath away.
Sharon D. Clarke’s Linda Loman is the backbone of the family. A matriarch, if you will, whose loyalty is stretched thin between her sons and husband. On the page, Linda’s “attention must be paid” speech is almost clunky, but on the stage it is powerful and Clarke mines it for all it worth.
André De Shields plays Ben Loman, Willy’s long-dead but very successful role model of a brother who has fueled many of Willy’s feverish ideas about the American dream. The irony is that Willy motto is it a man should be “impressive and well liked,” while Ben’s motto seems to be “never fight fair with a stranger.” If he is a bit of strange specter to modern eyes, one can imagine a young Willy falling for the success stories of this eccentric character: One can only grasp at what straws are tossed your way.
Willy’s end is sad in many ways, He does not even have the ideal death of a salesman—in the smoker of the New York–New Haven and Hartford railroad with hundreds of salesmen and buyers at the funeral. His death is barely noticed and his funeral a much smaller one—a few people, and some kind words, but nothing special, not a salesman in sight. It’s a sad little funeral, given what meaning and dignity it has by Linda and her unfailing honesty.
Death of a Salesman’s power is universal. It famously played in Beijing, a production that Miller directed. And in his Tony Award acceptance speech for directing the 2012 production, Mike Nichols said, “There is not a person in this theater who doesn’t know what it is to be a salesman.” It hit home with that audience and probably anyone who ever had a job interview. Willy is an everyman; and it can probably be said: If you don’t know a Willy Loman, you are a Willy Loman.
There are a lot of bells and whistles in this production, strobe lights, music and even sung speeches. If they don’t really add much, neither do they detract from the power of the play and the acting. The play is at is best in its quiet moments when the actors are left alone to say their lines. In those moments, the cast rises to the occasion and this Death of a Salesman play truly soars.
Death of a Salesman is playing at New York’s Hudson Theatre, 139-141 West 44th Street.
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