The sense of occasion is inescapable. Fifty years to the day after its opening, Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” perhaps the defining play of the waning American century, has returned to Broadway on the cusp of the next. At a time when disenchantment seems to perfume the very air we breathe, this play’s trenchant and tender exploration of both the necessity and the tragedy of disillusionment is indeed as resonant as ever, its dissection of an American dreamer as topical as today’s stock prices.
Of course, such a sense of occasion also brings with it elevated hopes. Robert Falls’ new production, from Chicago’s Goodman Theater, is hardworking and admirable, even if it may not strike everyone as the seminal or revelatory event that advance word and the inevitable 50th-anniversary media hoopla that has attended it led one to expect. It’s solid and respectable without being reverent, as is the Willy Loman of Brian Dennehy, but it only intermittently touches the emotional depths of the play. Its success is fragmentary rather than cumulative, its overall effect somber and ruminative rather than transcendantly moving.
Dennehy’s physical bulk gives his performance a particular poignancy. The mental disintegration of a man of such visible solidity is painful to witness. Dennehy’s hands are endlessly rubbing his forehead, shading eyes that betray the fear that Willy is forever swallowing back. It’s like he’s constantly puzzling out the faulty arithmetic that has resulted in a life that doesn’t add up to enough to cover the insurance premium.
The childlike gleam that appears in Willy’s eyes whenever he lapses into a happy reverie from the past or a dream of the future is the most telling and touching element in Dennehy’s performance. “Willy’s never so happy as when he’s looking forward to something,” as wife Linda says, and Dennehy gives palpable and, at times, almost unbearable truth to the words.
For Dennehy’s Willy, the American dream is like a drug habit he can’t kick, both soothing and corrupting. When he can shake his sense of failure by grasping a fleeting vision of past or present joy, it’s like a rush of narcotics going right to his heart. The tension leaves Dennehy’s hulking frame; his limbs go slack with relief.
But over the course of the play a sense of growth is missing from the performance; Dennehy’s Willy starts out almost where he ends up three hours later, anxious and brooding, with the same hopeful glint in his eyes as he contemplates the meager insurance money he imagines will provide his son with the chance to shortcut his way to specious success. This Willy Loman seems quietly doomed from the start, so his demise doesn’t have the power it should.
The wiry, wilted physical presence of Elizabeth Franz as Linda is also emblematic of her character. Franz’s face is drawn with anxiety from the play’s opening moments, her mouth trembling visibly as if unconsciously echoing Willy’s disturbed mutterings. She looks like a woman prematurely aged by caring, and her forced cheeriness is almost chilling.
But the steel in this woman’s careworn heart comes vitally to the fore when she’s pleading with her sons to respect their father and his thankless life — these scenes are the production’s emotional high points, and Franz is immensely moving in them.
Kevin Anderson is physically perfect for Biff — he looks like a high school Romeo whose good looks have gone slightly to seed — and he’s powerful in the play’s climax, when Biff and Willy finally, fitfully connect. At times, his performance lapses into period-style flatness, particularly in the flashback scenes, always the play’s hardest to render convincingly. But he comes intriguingly close to giving Biff’s hard-won self-knowledge the dramatic significance to the play that Miller himself has indicated it should carry.
Among the supporting players, Howard Witt stands out in a perfectly calibrated performance as Willy’s neighbor Charley, a measured turn that mixes just the right quantities of sardonic contempt and unspoken sympathy.
Ultimately Falls’ production reveals all the play’s complexities without creating from them a seamless, fluid artwork that sweeps us up in its momentum. Miller’s ideas can be seen poking up through the texture of the play with an occasional insistence that more consistently, viscerally engaging productions hide.
Part of this may be due to the complicated staging required by Mark Wendland’s inventive but unwieldy set. Jo Mielziner’s skeletal Loman home has been deconstructed here, reimagined as a giant blueprint of the mind of a man with a tendency to compartmentalize his life (an idea with special potency right now). But the sliding panels, circular revolves and moving boxes keep the actors in frequent, complicated motion, and are sometimes distractingly noisy. This air of effort sometimes seems to have seeped into the performance itself.
Still, a merely fine “Death of a Salesman” as opposed to a magnificent one is superior to most Broadway fare. The play is indisputably a landmark of American art in the 20th century, and it’s invigorating to reencounter it as we head into the next.