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Death of a Salesman

Robert Falls' superbly revisionist Goodman Theater revival of the Arthur Miller masterwork "Death of a Salesman" does for this classic text something akin to what Stephen Daldry achieved with "An Inspector Calls," or Nicholas Hytner with "Carousel."

Robert Falls’ superbly revisionist Goodman Theater revival of the Arthur Miller masterwork “Death of a Salesman” does for this classic text something akin to what Stephen Daldry achieved with “An Inspector Calls,” or Nicholas Hytner with “Carousel.” With a drastically post-modern concept that explodes those familiar Jo Mielziner images of the Willy Loman home into a disconnected and alienated series of floating boxes and pieces, Falls and designer Mark Wendland have breathed vibrant new energy into the play by releasing it from the shackles of familial sentiment and that too-familiar domestic design of modified realism.

This is far from being just another revival of “Death of a Salesman”: The creative choices here are sufficiently radical and provocative that this singular production deserves to be seen elsewhere.

And if the case against Willy Loman has been that this overly pathetic figure lacks tragic stature, Brian Dennehy’s greatest achievement here is to give this dime-a-dozen capitalist foot soldier a level of magnitude on the order of Greek tragedy. Lending the role an unusually high level of gravitas, Dennehy’s physical bulk, stentorian voice and palpable arrogance turn Willy into a lumbering colossus laid waste by Howard’s snippy small-mindedness and the salesman’s own pride and sexual peccadilloes.

You won’t see the behavioral intensity of Dustin Hoffman anywhere in Falls’ production — Dennehy’s uptight Willy does not have that kind of access to his own emotions. The gentler, nostalgic approach of, say, Hal Halbrook has also been banished: Dennehy’s proud and defiant salesman never gives an inch from his wrong-headed dreams to gain anyone’s sympathy.

When it comes to shedding tears, Dennehy and Falls (who are frequent collaborators) largely leave the stage to Elizabeth Franz, whose performance is the most memorable of the three-hour evening. In a role that often comes off as a shrewish enabler, Franz turns Linda into a desperately needy but entirely empathetic woman searching for internal peace.

Instead of the familiar accusatory or supportive tone that the text most obviously supports, Franz emphasizes Linda’s own needs and gives this woman resonance in the post-feminist age. In the play’s final moments, Franz splays her body over her husband’s grave — a striking image of the prices wives paid for the sins and limitations of their breadwinner husbands.

Kevin Anderson’s Biff is a disconnected slacker who comes with a seemingly intentional whiff of post-1960s anachronism. Those who see an intense father-and-son confrontation as the thematic heart of this play (it’s not in Falls’ version)will probably be disappointed by Anderson’s approach, but the sense of hopeless ennui nonetheless gives this character a modern dimension that lends the role something new. Ted Koch’s Happy also fits this revisionist bill, but Allen Hamilton’s Uncle Ben is a boringly conventional incarnation.

The other radical choice worthy of mention is the eternally irascible Howard Witt’s refusal to turn neighbor Charley into the usual vessel of sentiment. Oozing sardonic disinterest, Witt’s version of the neighbor is cold and complex, and his famous eulogy drips with irony.

So does this whole production, a revealing, hot-and-cold look at the familial casualties of business. Falls and Dennehy’s finest collaboration to date, it gives one of the great works in the American canon a theatrical kick back out on the road. It would be a worthy production to mark “Salesman’s” 50th anniversary on Broadway in 1999.

Death of a Salesman

Goodman Theater, Chicago; 683 seats; $41 top

  • Production: A Goodman Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Arthur Miller. Directed by Robert Falls.
  • Crew: Sets, Mark Wendland; costumes, Brigit Rattenborg Wise; lighting, Michael Philippi; music and sound, Richard Woodbury; dramaturg, Tom Creamer; production stage manager, T. Paul Lynch. Opened Sept. 28 , 1998. Reviewed Sept. 30. Running time: 2 HOURS, 50 MIN.
  • Cast: Willy Loman - Brian Dennehy<br> Linda - Elizabeth Franz<br> Biff - Kevin Anderson<br> Happy - Ted Koch<br> Bernard - David Frutkoff<br> The Woman - Kate Buddeke<br> Charley - Howard Witt<br> Uncle Ben - Allen Hamilton<br> Howard Wagner - Steve Pickering<br> Jenny - Marilynn Bogetich<br> Stanley - Kent Klineman<br> Miss Forsythe - Stephanie March<br> Letta - Shannon McCastland<br>
  • Music By: