Like a mad monarch spiraling out of control, Charles S. Dutton brings Shakespearean grandeur, passion and power to Willy Loman in Yale Rep’s production of “Death of a Salesman.” As Arthur Miller’s unraveling modern patriarch battling against external and internal forces, Dutton makes Willy Loman nothing less than an American Lear, though it’s left not to him but to the audience to understand his tragedy. But as harrowing and haunting as the lead perf is, the rest of the production doesn’t always measure up in its concepts, sluggish pacing and some of its casting.
Helmed by Rep a.d. James Bundy, the show exists primarily as a chance for Dutton to tackle the classic role in what turns out to be the first all-black production at a major theater in decades. But race quickly becomes beside the point. The Loman family’s crises relate to the same hopes, fears and dashed dreams that connect to any audience, and so from the very beginning it’s the performances that count.
Returning to the theater that launched his career 25 years ago in the premiere of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Dutton reignites the stage as a man desperately clinging to a capitalist mythology, even as it continually fails and betrays him.
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Dutton is a figure of both unrelenting strength and surprising vulnerability. He is a brute as he bullies his sons, diminishes his wife and dismisses his neighbor. But it’s his private moments of doubt, loneliness and insecurity that show a man whose bravado masks a very real — as well as existential — terror, that of his lack of self-worth.
“I have such thoughts,” says Dutton in a heartbreaking whisper to his wife, as he already senses the destruction, dementia and doom that inevitability await.
Showing that Willy is still a man to be loved — or at least paid attention to — is Kimberly Scott’s Linda, the long-suffering, enabling wife, devoted to her husband, yet just as fearful for his fate. Scott shows the character’s resilience as well as her fragility with dignity and specificity, never so powerfully as in her fierce confrontations with their wayward sons. But it’s her nuanced scenes with Dutton that beautifully fill in their relationship and illustrate that marriages are complicated, contradictory things.
Less successful are Ato Essandoh’s Biff and Billy Eugene Jones’ Happy — Willy’s lost boys, one trying to escape his father’s cycle of destruction, the other blind to it. Most disconcerting, however, is Willy’s dead brother Ben (Thomas Jefferson Byrd), conjured in Willy’s fevered brain as a white-suited, stylized dandy. Attempting to break away from the sloganeering pomposity this character often represents, this take on Ben instead is simply bizarre and inexplicable.
Rooted in a responsible yes-we-can reality are the fine Stephen McKinley Henderson as Willy’s loyal neighbor Charley and Austin Durant as his son Bernard. Their later scenes with Willy are among the most tender of the production, showing Willy at his most exposed — and human.
Bundy guides Willy’s past and present scenes with ease and clarity, aided by Stephen Strawbridge’s haunting lighting, Sarah Pickett’s soundscape and Dwight Andrews’ music. Scott Dougan’s set gets the encroaching physical world just right and gives a wide playing space for Willy’s changing realities, amid symbolistic touches of a ghostly car and a whitened tree.
It seems every era can connect to this play as speaking to its time, but the fraud, greed and amorality exposed by the current financial crisis give the work added dimension — and chill. Nowhere is this more true than in the scene in which Willy begs for his job as he’s shown the door by his boss (Howard W. Overshown) after 37 years of service.
But Dutton makes clear that Willy’s tragedy is not just one of society but one of pride and arrogance of the individual. The actor vividly shows a man who refuses to see the seismic shifts of a changing landscape, a man still searching for the secret to illusory success and for the keys to a kingdom that never was.