Judd Hirsch takes an unusual and brave approach to "Death of a Salesman's" Willy Loman, moving down byways not often explored by actors tackling this demanding role in Arthur Miller's classic 1949 play.

Judd Hirsch takes an unusual and brave approach to “Death of a Salesman’s” Willy Loman, moving down byways not often explored by actors tackling this demanding role in Arthur Miller’s classic 1949 play. Playing Willy as the quintessential New York Jewish father, driven to succeed and desperate for the approval of his sons, Hirsch injects the part with such humanity and levity that he moves the play from grand tragedy into the realm of family drama.

Yes, this Willy is deadly serious about his need to succeed, but instead of signaling his own demise early on and leaving us only to watch how it happens, he stays deluded and defiant to the last moment. And judging by audience reaction on opening night in Toronto, the idea worked for newcomers to the play. It also makes his decision to commit suicide all the more poignant.

Above all, Hirsch and director Gloria Muzio have stayed true to Miller’s play; whatever freshness they bring stems directly from the script. Hirsch does not rage so much as agonize, only once (when he reminds his boss of how the world once worked) releasing his pent-up frustrations and anger. Because Hirsch saves it for this scene, the result is all the more explosive.

“Salesman” still seems relevant today: With “downsizing” the catch phrase of the decade, it is only too easy to imagine a Willy Loman being taken off salary at the end of a long career. And as Rod McLachlan plays Howard, the young boss, it is also easy to envision the ruthlessness of the corporate leader who has no loyalty to, or affinity with, his workers. McLachlan is the epitome of Wall Street, with his clean-cut good looks, smooth as oiled silk, playing well against Hirsch’s gently befuddled and somewhat dowdy Willy.

Great attention has been paid to the look of this production, and John Pennoyer’s costumes speak volumes. Linda Loman’s light-colored floral frocks in the flashback scenes gradually give way to drabness and then darken altogether into her widow’s weeds. The sons graduate from knickerbockers and lovingly chosen outfits to the rough-fitting clothes of their ill-fitting adulthood.

Set designer Stephan Olson has created different playing levels, with a backdrop of apartment buildings lending an appropriate claustrophobia without strangling the actors’ space.

Aside from Hirsch’s star turn, there is a comfortable ensemble feel to this company. Richard Clarkin is a compelling Biff, Jim Bracchitta plays Happy with an increasing and believable desperation, and Rochelle Oliver handles Linda’s unswerving marital commitment with dignity and warmth (although her rather thin voice grates on the ear).

A few directing decisions, particularly one that makes neighbor Bernard (Geoffrey P. Cantor) an unremitting nerd, are not so successful. Bernard as child and Bernard as successful lawyer have no connection, and therefore the late scene with Willy seems false.

But the moments when the production doesn’t quite work are so fleeting they barely detract from the tremendous force brought to the play by Hirsch’s exquisite Willy. It’s a performance to remember and cherish.

Death of a Salesman

Royal Alexander Theater, Toronto; 1,500 seats; C$75 top

Production

A David and Ed Mirvish presentation, co-produced by the Manitoba Theater Center, of the play in two acts by Arthur Miller. Directed by Gloria Muzio. Original music and sound design by Martin R. Desjardins.

Creative

Sets, Stephan Olson; costumes, John Pennoyer; lighting, Robert Thomson. Opened, reviewed Feb. 11, 1997. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.

Cast

Cast: Judd Hirsch (Willy Loman), Rochelle Oliver (Linda Loman), Richard Clarkin (Biff Loman), Jim Bracchitta (Happy Loman), Geoffrey P. Cantor (Bernard), Gordana Rashovich (Woman in Boston), John Seitz (Charley), Leon Pownall/Colin Fox (Uncle Ben), Rod McLachlan (Howard Wagner), Heather Hodgson (Jenny/Letta), Ted Atherton (Stanley), Tara Maria Manuel (Miss Forsythe).

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