Howard W. Overshown and Charles S. Dutton
in Death of Salesman
(© Joan Marcus)
Howard W. Overshown and Charles S. Dutton
in Death of Salesman
(© Joan Marcus)
If Willy Loman were named Willy Loudman, Charles S. Dutton would be on target. In director James Bundy's all African-American revival of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman now at the Yale Repertory Theatre, the Tony Award-winning actor -- whom ticket-buyers might have thought was born to play the meaty role -- looks to be basing his interpretation on Willy's first-act line "Start big and you'll end big," without realizing there may be some place bigger to go. Indeed, he keeps the heightened shouting and waving arms up all but non-stop until the play's last third. And by completely disregarding what the text says about Willy's being "exhausted," Dutton and Bundy compromise the potentially devastating effect of the still magnificent American drama.

All is hardly lost in this revisit, however, thanks in large part to Miller's forceful writing, which laces oblique references to Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides but also declares implicitly that the 20th century mitigated against heroes of Greek-tragedy scale and in their place thrust forward a psychologically embattled Everyman attempting to retain dignity despite the diminishing value of the goods he's selling.

The story concerns the defeated Willy's last days and his need to convince himself by way of blowhard exaggeration that he is a success and "well-liked" throughout his New England territory. Moreover, he must convince himself that his older son, the drifting ex-football whiz Biff (a properly conflicted Ato Essandoh), is also destined for the big time. However, Willy's pie-in-the-sky hopes are at odds with a reality of which Linda (Kimberly Scott) is too aware -- a depressing situation where Willy's salary-earning days have come down to a struggle with mortgage payments, and where Willy's other son, Happy (a calculatedly jolly Billy Eugene Jones), is too much the womanizing wastrel.

Indeed, the most eye-poppingly effective scene in the first half of the piece occurs when Linda dresses the boys down for negligent treatment of their father. In fact, Scott's work hints the play could be renamed Survival of a Salesman's Wife. Keeping her voice at modulated decibel levels, Scott gets all the despair of the dream-dashed age Miller assiduously chronicles -- and that designer Scott Dougan evokes with a set appearing to be modeled on George Segal's bleached sculptures. (The effective lighting is by Stephen Strawbridge.)

The rest of the ensemble -- including Stephen McKinley Henderson as abiding neighbor Charley, Austin Durant as Charley's accomplished son, Bernard, Thomas Jefferson Byrd as ghostly brother Ben, and Howard W. Overshown as hard-nosed boss Howard -- hit the proper discordant chords right up to the finishing line. Then, Dutton himself harmonizes with the heartbreakingly resonant salesman's death. Finally, the actor -- and Miller's great play -- emerge triumphant.