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Review: `Death of a Salesman’

This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

March 3, 1999. All rights reserved.

Thanks to the Roundabout Theater Company, Broadway’s

Eugene O’Neill Theater is the new home for the Goodman Theater of

Chicago’s acclaimed production of Arthur Miller’s great tragic social

drama, "Death of a Salesman." Insightfully and imaginatively

directed by Robert Falls, and empowered by a trio of extraordinary

performances among a host of fine ones, this production offers an

authentically fresh approach to a well-known classic.

In a twisty sort of way, Brian Dennehy’s grandly idiosyncratic approach

to his role as the traveling salesman who rode "on a smile and

a shoeshine," proves no match for the brilliant Elizabeth Franz’s

stunningly realized portrayal of his wife, Linda. The overall effectiveness

of their intertwined delusions and illusions puts a wonderfully unfamiliar

slant on Miller’s bold play. This is first and foremost a production

designed to give full sway to Miller’s illusory visions of memory

and fantasy. Even Kevin Anderson, as their son Biff, offers a strikingly

complex image of the ne’er-do-well, former jock.

Just as the play is embossed with some powerful visual imagery, it

is also hampered by designer Mark Wendland’s overly active set. While

Dennehy clings to his significantly original conception of the emotionally

disintegrating salesman, he is obliged to keep pace with a turntable

and crossing set pieces.

"Attention must be paid," says Willy Loman’s wife Linda. And

no matter how many times "Death of a Salesman" is revived

(the Paper Mill Playhouse produced a commendable production with Ralph

Waite just a year ago), each can be counted upon to reaffirm its greatness.

It would be virtually impossible for any major professional company

not to be elevated by this play that influenced the face of American

dramatic literature, as it did the work of a generation of writers.

What is especially noteworthy is that this American classic had its

official opening night on February 10, exactly 50 years to the day

from its 1949 premiere. Along with Tennessee Williams’ "The Glass

Menagerie," Lillian Hellman’s "Little Foxes," Eugene O’Neill’s

"Long Day’s Journey Into Night," and Thornton Wilder’s "Our

Town," to name but a few, Miller’s lyrical elegy to the working

man has become permanently entrenched in America’s hearts and minds.

Fifty years and countless memorable Willy Lomans later (Lee J. Cobb,

Fredric March, George C. Scott, Dustin Hoffman, to name a few), the

impact of the play has not diminished. "Salesman" so eloquently

and masterfully parallels the disintegration of one man’s life with

the changing values around him, that we can only marvel at how awesome

and timeless is what we see and hear, as if for the first time.

"Death of a Salesman" is one of those rare plays that, through

the sheer force of its own power, can drive its actors to peaks of

excitement. This happens often enough with this company which has

allowed its keenest artistic impressions to take hold. How amazing

it is that after all these years, this intense play remains capable

of emotionally moving an audience, even when we are all so familiar

with the plot. By gradually meting out information, "Salesman"

has the ability to carry us along in its thrall even when we know

how the story will finally resolve.

At his best moments in the later portions of the play, Dennehy permits

the nervous ticks and the growing disorientation of Willy’s weakening

condition to become monumentally devastating. Dennehy is almost as

successful at making his private, hallucinating Willy appear as vivid

as his public, more volatile, image. The result is close to breathtaking.

It is just as gripping as it is painful to watch Dennehy’s imposing

burly body appear to disintegrate, as he grows more heroic and resolute.

This, even as his life force is seen ebbing away. What better praise

to give this fine actor than to say he takes us often enough from

an ordinary experience into the exceptional. As the 63-year-old suffering

salesman without a future, Dennehy ushers Miller’s tragic hero into

a space that is formidably shared by the other great Willy interpreters.

As Willy’s protective wife Linda, Elizabeth Franz (with catches in

her voice that recall the great Mildred Dunnock, who created the role

on Broadway) gives a dazzling, once-in-a-lifetime performance. In

Franz’s hands, Linda becomes a heroic figure on a par with Willy.

If it isn’t enough for her to richly enhance the prerequisite poignancy

of her role as the stabilizing force in the household with fierce

flashes of anger, she will surely break your heart with her soliloquy

at Willy’s grave. As Charlie, the good friend and neighbor who loves

Willy with no questions asked, Howard Witt delivers conviction and

the no-nonsense voice of practicality.

The exceptional Kevin Anderson also brings new facets to the deeply

confounded and disillusioned shiftless ex-jock son, Biff. Even Ted

Koch gets an original, gently dumb beat on the younger brother Happy’s

philandering nature. Others in the cast who perform with distinction

are Richard Thompson, as Charlie’s nerdy son Bernard, Allen Hamilton,

as the Willy’s adventurous brother Ben, and Steve Pickering, as Willy’s

callous boss Howard. Despite the unsettling activity of Wendland’s

set, lighting designer Michael Philippi casts some awesome light and

shadow upon Willy’s crumbling world. HHHH

— Simon Saltzman

Death of a Salesman, Eugene O’Neill Theater, 230 West

49, 800-432-7250. $45 to $65.

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