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A CurtainUp Review
Death of a Salesman-- Second Thoughts
By Elyse Sommer
For our original review of this production go here.
Willy Loman has become a character as familiar as some of Shakespeare's most famous tragic figures like Hamlet and Macbeth and King Lear. Willy, unlike the Bard's doomed anti-heros, is a common man from that vast spectrum of the upwardly striving lower middle class to which audiences can immediately relate. And, like the Shakespeare characters, you keep revisiting new productions to see what new light has been cast on Willy's character as well as that of his family members.
If you count the movie, I've visited with Willy and his family so many times I've lost count. His name has entered my lexicon as an every day allusion for a self-deluded boaster and striver, as has Linda Loman's famous "Attention, attention must be paid." Its melodramatic excesses notwithstanding, Death of a Salesman remains one of the most enduring plays in my theatrical memory book. Each new Willy brings something different. Each viewing of the play prompts thoughts of people who though unlike Willy nevertheless seem to contain bits and pieces of him. (The same is true of Linda, Biff, Happy and Charley.).
In 1984 Dustin Hoffman brought Willy's physical size in line with the smallness of the man's character and stature in the larger scheme of things Now, coinciding with the play's fiftieth anniversary, director Robert Fall has once again brought us a physical giant of a Willy by casting Brian Dennehy, an actor of gigantic talent. He has also married him to Elizabeth Franz who introduces a fascinating aggressiveness into loyal Linda Loman's traditional passivity.
These terrific actors and the fine supporting cast alone make this Chicago originated production a welcome addition to Broadway. Like Michael Rodman who directed the 1984 revival with Dustin Hoffman, Mr. Fall has focused on the father and son relationship. ( Kevin Anderson is a convincing Biff). He has also done for Death of a Salesman what director Michael Mayer recently did for Miller's A View From the Bridge. There's a kitchen sink, but it's just barely visible here. What we have is a set that is now more of a piece with the expressionistic dream scenes that the playwright projected into the social realism of his story and dialogue. Thus Mark Wendland's turntable set is furnished with minimum props, with black shadows surrounding and spotlighting the actors cinematically. The introductory music -- described in Miller's stage description as "a melody. . .played on a flute" -- has been replaced by dissonant city noises made by horns and drums.
Unlike some long-time Miller watchers who may find this starkly expressionistic staging distracting, I found it exciting and extremely effective. The only distraction comes from seeing a play for the umpteenth time and tending to catch yourself waiting for the most often quoted lines. It made me almost envious of the mostly twenty-five to forty-ish audience that packed the house at the Wednesday night performances I attended. They're unlikely to have seen the play often enough to be able to lipsynch along with Linda's "Attention must be paid. . ." and Willy's "You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away -- a man is not a piece of fruit!"
And yet, expected or not, coming from Franz and Dennehy the words still do demand attention, as does this play. That's because is as much a tribute to fully realized human beings as it is an indictment of false values. It hasn't weathered fifty years -- with productions in many languages -- without reason. It would be nice to think that members of The Drama Desk, which also celebrated its fiftieth birthday this week, will soon have a chance to review a new play that will endure midway into the coming millennium, when a new production of Death of a Salesman is more than likely to be playing on one stage or another.
For cast list and other production notes, see our 2/07/99 review
For a list of links to other Arthur Miller plays reviewed at Curtainup, see our Miller biography (part of our Playwright's Album)