At 65, Death of a Salesman is now older than its mercurial and sagging protagonist, but it is not about to self-destruct. Arthur Miller's devastating 1949 portrait of worn-out, thrown-out Willy Loman skidding on a smile, a shoeshine, and all the wrong dreams, still packs an emotional and thematic wallop, even in a solid rather than transcendent production. At the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, artistic director Spiro Veloudos helms a staging that is both respectful and well acted, though a little jumbled. Playwright Miller recalls in his autobiography Timebends: A Life the subtle but significant alterations of lighting that designer Jo Mielziner implemented to distinguish among present, past, fantasy, and crack-up in the original production. Here these elements seem tossed willy-nilly around the hemmed-in Loman backyard — rather like son Biff's football.
Miller also mentions an outraged woman who on opening night called the play "a time bomb under American capitalism," and he admits he hoped it was one, at least "under the bullsh*t of American capitalism, this pseudo life that thought to touch the clouds by standing on top of a refrigerator, waving a paid-up mortgage at the moon, victorious at last." But anyone who has experienced it knows that the power of the play lies in its familial tension and misguided love, all of it trapped in close quarters, not in its politics. At the Lyric, Janie E. Howland's set, mostly faithful to Miller's instructions, is a realistic warren pressed down upon by abstract shafts that represent the apartment buildings that have come to squeeze the Loman domicile. The family, scrunched into their old-fashioned pajamas and shared fury, do indeed seem too big for it — which makes their situation somehow sadder.
I believe the last Willy Loman to lug his sample cases into Boston, on his way to Broadway and a Tony, was Brian Dennehy in 1999. A massive actor, he nonetheless brought to Miller's disintegrating salesman a striking delicacy of gesture. Ken Baltin is slighter and more exhausted if also, when he gets wound up in rage or old enthusiasms, inexhaustible. He is not a Willy you believe was ever "well-liked," which he believes to be, along with a good appearance, the key to success. He's even a little boorish, which works for him in his never-ending attempts to override his family. But we might feel more for the character if there were hints of the old salesman's charisma — the disappearance of which is, as more successful neighbor Charley observes at the funeral, "an earthquake."
As loyal, even admiring wife Linda, the excellent Paula Plum captures both the young wife and family bookkeeper's optimism and the anxiousness of the woman who sees the love of her life, however undeserving, falling apart at the mental and physical seams. And her anger at the sons who fail to bolster him is too palpable for her to be considered a doormat. Kelby T. Akin is a handsome, convincingly outdoorsy Biff who conveys the overgrown kleptomaniacal boy's mix of hurt, contempt, and frustration at trying to get to the truth of things. The exchange in which he tells his father that both of them are "a dime a dozen" and Baltin summons the strength to roar back is one of the most affecting in the production. And Joseph Marrella, as second and less favored son Happy, brings to that role a touching combination of glibness, hot air, and eagerness to please. The supporting players do yeomens' work as well, though some of it is too large for the space. And better differentiation between brother Ben's visits as a real person with a tantalizing invitation and his appearances as a figment of Willy's desperate imagination would punch up the play's once-daring forays into magical realism. It's obvious that director Veloudos reveres the play, but his production succeeds better at conveying its raw emotion than its poetry.