In an interview shortly after he opened in “Death of a Salesman” in N.Y., Brian Dennehy said it felt strange to hear Wall Street investment counselors, pricey lawyers and high-octane corporate types snuffling in the audience as though they, like Willy Loman, had been inescapably exposed and brought to their knees. One of the amazingly durable qualities of the Arthur Miller classic is in how it shows juggernaut American capitalism’s wind-shear effect on the lives of the people who buy into it — which is mostly everybody.
Even if merely competently done, “Salesman” will get to you. The Tony-winning Broadway production (by way of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre) that opened at the Ahmanson Wednesday is in many ways better than competent. It is, ideally, an ensemble piece, even if the emphasis falls on Willy. And the current production belongs to Elizabeth Franz, who plays Willy’s wife, Linda.
A cool, sometimes bleak rectilinear design places the Loman kitchen as a small room in a dark, cacophonous outside world. Willy comes home early from his New England trip; his sample cases look like they weigh a ton. He’s confused, tired, his bluster a mask for his fear. Linda consoles him. Later, we meet the boys, Biff, the favored son, and Hap, a little less loved and more cynical therefore. Willy’s return, with all its portent of unhappiness and failure, sets them in motion.
The audience first sees Franz’s Linda as a thin, fussy, dutiful woman, a little on the mousy side with maybe a touch of early Parkinson’s. Nothing prepares us for that steely eruption in the kitchen in which she excoriates her young louts for their disrespect toward Willy. You could feel the stunned tension as audience members witnessed the power of a wife’s uncompromising love for a husband whose weaknesses she clearly sees. Franz’s Linda may be thin, like a kind of tree, but the family’s life together relies on her strength.
Ron Eldard’s performance of Biff is not far behind Franz’s in caliber. He brings nuance and complication to a kid who knows he’s not a stellar intellect but is struggling to understand himself — and forgive his father, after having witnessed the unforgivable. The final scene between Biff and Willy, where they tearfully kiss in a tortuous embrace — still too embittered by mutual disappointment ever to make real peace — is almost unbearable to watch. They hate each other because they love each other.
That scene, and the restaurant/motel scene in which Willy takes a fall, makes you feel for Dennehy’s Willy. When a big man hits the floor, more seems to fall than the man himself. Still, if there were one word to describe the actor’s robust performance, it would be calculating. Dennehy is technically fluent in Willy’s confusions and angry bravado, but his big chest seems impenetrable — to bullet, to spear and to giving view of a lacerated heart. The performance is powerful just the same.
The rest of the cast is creditable, particularly Howard Witt’s portrayal of deadpan neighbor and good friend Charley, a man whose decency fully survives complete disenchantment.
Robert Falls’ direction is neither conventional nor stodgy as he gets the action to move well emotionally and physically. The actors communicate with each other wonderfully, almost like a string quartet.
As a nonexpository, nondidactic social play, “Salesman” seems quintessentially American (the way “The Importance of Being Earnest” couldn’t be anything but English). If it were just that, it would still be a great play for the way it painfully skewers our can-do aphorisms: Think big. Follow your dream. But what elevates it above a black comedy along the lines of Durenmatt’s “The Visit” is that it’s about family.
Miller mentions this in his program notes: It could be about socialist Sweden or post-Mao China’s near-religious belief in its ossified revolution. Ideological inertia is one thing, but it’s nothing compared to the painful labyrinth of family life.