Rightfully acclaimed as one of the classics of American dramatic literature, Arthur Miller’s tragic social drama “Death of a Salesman” has returned to Broadway in a much more than respectful production. As sensitively directed by Mike Nichols, the play has a topical relevance that unsurprisingly remains in the forefront of our current socio-economic turbulence. But also exciting is the return of the artistic vision of the play’s original designer, the late great Joe Mielziner, whose now legendary set has been expressly recreated by designer Brian Webb.
What a treat to this masterpiece — the expressionistic two-level skeletal set depicting the small Loman home and yard and other locations through which we at times can see the encroaching New York apartment buildings.
Nichols has empowered a very fine cast to bring a fresh approach to the drama. This is most critically seen in the often stunning, psychologically revealing performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman as the traveling salesman who rode “on a smile and shoeshine.” He is matched in creating a uniquely individualized character by Linda Emond as his wife Linda. The overall effectiveness of their entwined delusions and illusions provides us with a wonderfully unfamiliar but still persuasive perspective on Miller’s bold play.
Nichols’ production is unquestionably designed to a give Miller’s play a completely realized vision of memory and fantasy. Even Andrew Garfield, as their son Biff, offers a strikingly complex, if also untypical, image of the shiftless, deeply confounded, disillusioned ex-jock son.
Just as the play is embossed with the kind of powerful and now legendary visual imagery that theater scholars have talked about since the play opened on Broadway in 1949, Hoffman does not stray discomfortingly from the original conception of the emotionally disintegrating salesman.
Almost 50 years and countless memorable Willy Lomans later (Lee J. Cobb, Fredric March [film], George C. Scott, Dustin Hoffman, and Brian Dennehy, to name a few), the impact of the play has not diminished. It 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.
At his best moments in the later portions of the play, Hoffman permits the panicky mood swings and the growing disorientation of Willy’s weakening condition to become monumentally devastating. What is quite remarkable is that he is just as successful at making his private, hallucinating Willy appear as vivid as his public, more volatile image. The result is pretty close to breathtaking. It is a devastating experience to watch Hoffman’s rotund body appear to shrivel, as he grows more heroic and resolute and as Willy’s life force is seen ebbing away.
What better praise to give this fine actor, whose stage performances on Broadway in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” and Off Broadway in “The Seagull” and “Othello” (under Nichols’ direction), as well as his Academy Award-winning screen portrayal of “Capote,” that he, as the suffering 63-year-old salesman, takes us often enough from an ordinary experience into the exceptional.
As Linda, Emond becomes a heroic figure almost on a par with Willy. She richly enhances the prerequisite poignancy of her role as the stabilizing force in the household with sustained sense of duty and responsibility — not an easy task considering how acutely aware she is of being belittled and condescended to. Even if Linda’s soliloquy at Willy’s grave is calculated to break your heart, which it does, Emond avoids manipulation making it all the more real and honest.
Bill Camp is excellent as Charlie, the good friend and neighbor with the no-nonsense voice of practicality who loves Willy with no questions asked. Finn Wittrock gets an affecting, gently irresponsible beat on the younger brother Happy’s philandering nature. Just a quibble, but Wittrock has the physique that one might assume would make him a better choice physically for the role of Biff. But then again, Biff was a quarterback and didn’t necessarily need the brawn.
Others in the cast who perform with distinction include Fran Kranz, as Charlie’s nerdy son Bernard, John Glover, as Willy’s adventurous brother Ben, and Remy Auberjonois as Willy’s callous boss Howard.
Along with Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes,” Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Days 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 our hearts and minds.
To borrow from Willy Loman’s wife Linda, who said, “Attention must be paid,” “Death of a Salesman,” no matter how many times it is revived, 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 also influenced the work of a generation of writers.
“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 many of its own and valid 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 they are familiar with the plot. Kudos to lighting designer Brian MacDevitt for drenching this great play with the kind of hallucinatory lights and shadows that help to define Willy’s crumbling world.
“Death of a Salesman,” through June 2, Barrymore Theater, 243 West 47th Street. $46.50-$131.50. 212-239-6200. HHHH