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This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 11,

1998. All rights reserved.

Review: `Death of a Salesman’

On February 10, 1949, Arthur Miller’s tragic social

drama "Death of a Salesman" joined the select ranks of plays

that have earned the title American classic. Along with Tennessee

Williams’ "The Glass Menagerie" and "A Streetcar Named

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

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

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

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

The Paper Mill Playhouse, a venue not renowned for its attention to

classic drama, is getting on the Miller bandwagon. To borrow Willy

Loman’s wife’s phrase, "Attention must be paid." Miller’s

plays, some old, some new, have been the focus this year of the Signature

Theater Company in New York, whose mission it is to devote an entire

season to the work of a single playwright. Thus Miller’s plays have

been revisited by audiences and critics.

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

the sheer force of its own power, can drive even the most unexceptional

company to reach peaks of excitement. Even when cornered by the most

perfunctory of artistic impressions, to which Paper Mill’s director

David Wheeler seems committed, the intense play still proves capable

of emotionally engaging its audience. By gradually meting out information,

it carries us along in its thrall even when we know how the story

will finally resolve.

Almost 50 years and many memorable Willy Lomans later (Lee J. Cobb,

Fredric March, George C. Scott, Dustin Hoffman), 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.

The excellent actor Ralph Waite is playing Willy Loman, a role he

has previously played at Houston’s Alley Theater. Yet even as Waite

presents a dramatic portrait of defeat and weakness, he is currently

shuttling back and forth to the coast each week between performances

where he hopes to convey the opposite image. Waite is running for

Congress in the 44th Congressional district in California in a special

election due to the death of Sonny Bono.

Waite’s private, hallucinating Willy is as vivid as

it is volatile. Yet it is the public Willy that is Waite’s forte as

Willy grows more heroic and resolute, even as his life force is seen

ebbing away. These are only some of the visible dimensions that are

revealed by the distinguished-looking Waite whose questionably defeated

countenance nevertheless take us often enough from an ordinary experience

into the exceptional. As the 63-year-old salesman without a future,

Waite ushers Miller’s tragic hero into a space that is, unfortunately,

not shared by the production’s other actors.

The sad thing about this production is that, with the exception of

Waite, no one gives a really compelling performance. As Charlie, the

good friend and neighbor who loves Willy, with no questions asked,

a quietly New York-ish Joseph Hindy hits the mark of conviction, more

than the rest do. As Willy’s protective wife Linda, Lisa Richards

(with catches in her voice that recall Mildred Dunnock, who created

the role on Broadway) has moments that might be construed as touching,

as you slowly accept her as the stabilizing force in the household.

While I don’t know what to make of Rob Sedgwick’s wildly unorthodox

jock Biff, Willy’s shiftless dunce of a son, Sean Runnette, at least,

gets the right beat on the younger brother Happy’s wild heart. Others

in the cast performed serviceably without notable distinction. Designers

Michael Anania (scenic) and Dennis Parichy (lighting) cradled the

intimate scenes in the expansive lights and shadows of New York tenements.

— Simon Saltzman

Death of a Salesman, Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside

Drive, Millburn, 973-376-4343. Ralph Waite stars in the classic directed

by David Wheeler. $32 to $47; $10 students. To April 5.


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