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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
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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