BWW Review: Ford's Theatre's Gripping and Raw DEATH OF A SALESMAN
I have a confession to make. Despite having read Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman numerous times and despite having seen several television adaptions, I have never seen this groundbreaking play onstage. So heading into Ford's Theatre's production I was curious: does Miller's work hold up after seven decades, does the character and occupation seem antiquated in our all-encompassing technological world, and does a play that has been thoroughly analyzed since its debut still have something left to say?
The answer is a resounding yes, yes, and yes!
Ford's Theatre's must-see production is raw and gripping in its emotional intensity. Led by Craig Wallace's powerhouse performance as Willy Loman, Miller's Pulitzer Prize winning play is as relevant now, maybe more so, in its questioning of the American dream as it was when it first opened. Watching Willy attempt to cope with the end of his career as a traveling salesman, and reflecting on his failures as a father and businessman, Ford's Theatre's revival leads us to ask: is the American dream even attainable?
Wallace's portrayal is a forceful theatrical cocktail of passion and despair forever internally debating whether he wants to be liked versus respected. His Willy doesn't so much as move about the stage as he does saunter, continually searching for the next big thing amid memories of his brother's success and faded optimism over the direction of his boys. And yet, we never pity Willy, for who amongst us has not thought about life's what ifs?
Willy's exhausted, a fact confirmed by the crumpled brown pin stripe suit he wears courtesy of Costume Designer Wade Laboissonniere. The suit itself has seen one too many cities with Willy and looks as worn and deflated as he does.
And yet, Miller's Death of a Salesman is more than just Willy, the play is an examination of the American notion that we are judged by one's wealth and occupation. For the blatant unfairness of such a practice is laid blare when Wallace's Willy erupts in Act II, telling his boss, "I put thirty-four years into this firm, Howard, and now I can't pay my insurance! You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away - a man is not a piece of fruit." It is moments like these where Death of a Salesman seems even more potent today than it did in 1949 when mom and pop stores and "main street" where not just figments of history.
If there is an element of compassion in Death of a Salesman it is Willy's dedicated and empathetic wife Linda, played with profound heart and an impassioned loyalty by Kimberly Schraf. While the immaturity of her boys, the patronizing arrogance of Willy's brother, and uncaring detachment of his boss Howard, may only see a man beyond his usefulness, Schraf's Linda sees a man who provided for her family. When Schraf declares the play's anthem, "Attention must be paid," this is not just spousal concern, this is a battle cry.
One of the more heartbreaking aspects of the play comes not from the business world, but Willy's own family. Miller's astute use of flashbacks are tremendously beneficial for helping us understand the Loman boys - Biff and Happy. Every parent thinks their child is special, but Willy takes that idea to the stratosphere.
Thomas Keegan gives a rich, nuanced performance as elder son Biff. He's handsome, was the well-liked captain of the all-city football team in high school, and now is lost wondering from ranch to ranch in the west. There is a determination in Keegan's Biff, not only in the flashback scenes as a young athlete, but also in his drive to gain Willy's affection, understanding and ultimately forgiveness for his present life situation.
Biff is an interesting juxtaposition in comparison to Happy, played by a boyish Danny Gavigan. The brotherly bond between both he and Keegan is apparent. Gavigan succeeds in showcasing Happy's immaturity and childlike drive to still obtain his mother's forgiveness even after faltering. He delivers one of the evening's cruelest lines in Act II, pulling the scene off masterfully by focusing on Happy's self-centered, egotistical and over powered sex drive at the cost of his father.
Hovering over Willy like a phantom is his brother Ben, seen only in flashbacks. We are not quite sure how accurate his memories of Ben's visits are, but the mere specter of Ben is enough to make Willy feel almost pathetic, cowering to his older brother for any opportunity to get rich. Frederick Strother is quite striking in the role, thanks to the white suit Laboissonniere has dressed him in, sauntering around with an air of superiority and mystery. Miller doesn't reveal much about the character, only seeming to repeat the same few biographical details. Still, it's enough to hold our interest and Willy's imagination.
Ben's entrances, along with all the flashback scenes, are expertly directed by Stephen Rayne who uses Tim Mackabee's multi-tier set to tremendous effect. This allows the characters to flow in and out of Willy's memory with great ease. Rows of skyscraper windows line the set, hovering over the characters, making them feel the confinement of their Brooklyn home and adding to the pressure in the already tense Loman household.
If all this isn't enough for Willy, there are his neighbors Charley and his well-to-do son Bernard. Charley is not only successful; he keeps offering Willy a job that will take him off the road. Michael Russotto's friendly disposition makes Charley instantly likeable and it is that kindness which seems to repulse Willy, despite everything his neighbor has done for him. Brandon McCoy portrays Bernard with great perception of the Loman's situation and Biff's lack of success.
It is amazing to think that Death of a Salesman opened on Broadway almost 70 years ago. Miller's ability to thoughtfully question the themes of consumerism, success and the American dream are a testament to his forward outlook, as they remain just as relevant as they did in the post-World War II economic boom. Everyone may have a different idea of what constitutes the American dream, but for many, Willy's dream of homeownership, a successful family and financial wealth may not be far off from their own dreams. With Death of a Salesman, Miller and Ford's Theatre's excellent production are once again asking us to pay attention and question these issues.
Runtime is three hours with one intermission
Death of a Salesman runs thru October 22nd at Ford's Theatre - 511 10th St NW, Washington, DC 20004. For tickets please call (202) 347-4833 or click here.