Arthur Miller titled his best play “Death of a Salesman,” but he could have called it “An American Tragedy” — had Dreiser not already used the phrase. For nearly 50 years, directors have staged Miller’s play as pretty much an overwhelmingly bleak meditation on what is popularly described as the American Dream.
At Garry Marshall’s Falcon Theater, director Andrew J. Robinson breaks no new ground with his production but manages to remind audiences yet again how uncompromising Miller’s indictment remains. Moreover, the director has found a potent Willy Loman in the person of Jack Klugman, an actor of surprising range and one who conveys the physical weariness of his role with startling veracity.
Part of the genius in Miller’s play is that it not only recounts Willy’s crack-up in great detail, but also provides audiences with the deep background to understand it. It is at once a chronicle of a death foretold and a memory play. Robinson does not integrate these two elements as smoothly as one would like — there is a fit-and-start quality to his transitions — but he conveys the pathos of Miller’s proto-dysfunctional family nonetheless. Indeed, Robinson presides over a series of interesting choices that only heighten the play’s tragic qualities.
The play opens with Willy returning home early from a sales trip to New England, and from the first Klugman plays him as a man finally beaten down by life’s hard circumstances. There is no furtive entrance, no attempt to conceal the weariness. In the flashback scenes, when Willy extols the virtues of hard work and positive thinking to his sons and wife, Klugman unbows his back and puts spring in his step, but underneath the bravado, the ultimately feeble attempts of a small man to pursue big dreams, lies an exhaustion, as if even discussing such matters requires an effort beyond Willy.
Unfortunately, having suffered some vocal-cord damage, Klugman must now be miked onstage. His gravelly tone well suits Willy’s predicament, but the miking is disconcerting, especially since the other actors are not similarly amplified. As a result, Willy’s words have an almost spectral aspect, an attribute not really consistent with Miller’s vision and one that doesn’t suit the play. Some people will find such concerns irrelevant or get used to the effect, but others may be less forgiving.
By investing Willy’s wife Linda with angry bitterness rather than meek protest, Nancy Linehan Charles reverses conventional notions about this long-suffering character. The actress’ tentative delivery sometimes mitigates against the power of her portrayal, but it is fascinating, and often painful, to watch her lash out at sons Biff (Raphael Sbarge) and Happy (James Calvert) rather than blame her misguided husband. As the children, Sbarge and Calvert face the challenge of portraying both boys and men, as the script dictates, a task less easy to manage than most people realize. They are, not surprisingly, better as men. And Sbarge is particularly compelling in the confrontation scenes with Klugman, especially at the play’s end, when one wonders whether Biff or Willy is the more unhinged by their unfulfilled lives.
In the small parts, too, Robinson has assembled good players. Gibson Frazier underplays Bernard, the boys’ quietly successful friend, so that he is sympathetic and not supercilious. And Steven Gilborn as Charley, Bernard’s father, also elicits warm feelings. Even Zane Lasky’s Howard, Willy’s unforgiving boss, seems more distracted and misguided than downright mean. As Willy’s wealthy older brother, Ben, James Karen offers apt gravity and bonhomie.
Jay Moore’s unit set is a simple, effective, two-level affair, with an ice box, gas stove and water heater lending realism. It’s perfect for this staging, as is John Clemens’ careful lighting.
For music, producer Christopher Steele uses the strains Alex North composed for the original Broadway production, augmented by some fine work by Renzo Mantovani.
The uninformed occasionally think works like “Salesman” cliched or beyond imparting relevant object lessons. But productions like this one, its flaws notwithstanding, prove such notions wrong.
Miller’s work has held fast for 50 years and will doubtless stand for at least another 50. Attention must be paid.