'Death of a Salesman'

Key ingredient is an uncommonly energetic take on the principal role from Jeffrey DeMunn.

In “Death of a Salesman,” the Lomans’ Brooklyn home — their foundation, the only solid thing they’ve managed to establish in the earth — is as much a central character as Willy himself. Any fears of losing that physical touchstone in an arena staging are quickly dispelled, as designer Marion Williams and helmer Pam MacKinnon’s ingenious choices actually immerse us more deeply into Willy’s chaotic universe than many a proscenium production. Key ingredient is an uncommonly energetic take on the principal role from Jeffrey DeMunn.

Worn, stripped doors and window units appear just long enough to convey strength eroded by time and worry. That impression lingers when the frames disappear, revealing an array of platforms at varying depths connected by steps, layered like an archaeological dig.

Here’s the beauty of theater in the round. Shrewd use of audience aisles create the sense of a living organism, or at least a beehive of sensory impressions, as the people of Willy’s overlapping past and present sidle in and vanish to keep him on constant edge. Voices and sound effects, too, are piped in non-realistically — MacKinnon and designer Jeremy J. Lee could go even further here — sealing Willy within his memories while tightening the vise grip on the spectator.

An atmosphere of entrapment works for DeMunn’s bantam rooster interpretation, in which cheery optimism constantly tempers Willy’s contentiousness and rage. Hopes for remedy never flag: “What’s the answer?” he demands of everyone, not rhetorically but with an American’s can-do belief in second acts. (His toothy grin and pince-nez are poignant reminders of FDR, who got a generation through Depression and war but wasn’t around to pick up the pieces.)

When the search for answers comes up snake eyes, Willy’s dilemma becomes positively existential, fed by the tension between the circular environment’s swirling momentum and DeMunn’s determination to stay on his feet. The relief when he sails off to his titular fate — not defeated but transfigured; here’s the positive step he’s been seeking — feels very much like catharsis.

DeMunn and Moseley are utterly credible life partners in their prickly give-and-take, with Moseley summoning up strength rarely seen in Lindas to indict her sons for what they’ve done to her man. Lucas Caleb Rooney takes a too studied, intellectualized approach to Biff, but Tyler Pierce completely embodies brother Happy’s in-the-bones sleaziness.

Jordan Baker and Jesse Jensen make the most of brief appearances as witnesses to Willy’s disintegration, and John Procaccino offers a superb, fully realized portrait of neighbor Charley as the put-together man Willy yearns to be, but can’t see standing right in front of him.

Death of a Salesman

Old Globe, San Diego; 250 seats; $67 top

Production

An Old Globe presentation of a play in two acts by Arthur Miller. Directed by Pam MacKinnon.

Creative

Sets, Marion Williams; costumes, Matthew J. LeFebvre; lighting, Rui Rita; sound, Jeremy J. Lee; stage manager, Lavinia Henley. Opened Jan. 27, 2011. Reviewed Jan. 29. Runs through Feb. 27. Running time: 3 HOURS.

Cast

Willy Loman - Jeffrey DeMunn
Linda - Robin Moseley
Biff - Lucas Caleb
Rooney Happy - Tyler Pierce
With: Jordan Baker, Ben Diskant, Jesse Jensen, John Procaccino, Deborah Radloff, Ryman Sneed, Adrian Sparks, Jonathan Spivey.

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