Death of a Salesman tells the story of a man who bought into the American Dream and then discovered too late that it was a fraud; it tells, also, the parallel story of his son, whose unshakable trust and admiration for his father is cataclysmically destroyed by a single sad act of betrayal. Both Willy Loman and his son Biff are victims of lies they knowingly accept and knowingly tell. Biff is redeemed because he finally comes to understand this. Willy is tragic because he never understands.
Willy is tragic, too, because the bushwah he bought into is so deceptively slippery. At the very center of the play, Willy tells his employer why he became a salesman: when he was a very young man, he met an 84-year-old man so beloved by his customers that they flocked to his hotel room to bring him business. This man, Willy says, died the death of a salesman, with a funeral packed to the rafters with cronies and colleagues from the road. For Willy, who really does believe that success can be attained just from a smile and a shoeshine, this man's funeral is the ultimate achievement. He misses the sad irony of his pronouncement: that 84-year-old man did die the death of a salesman, alone and unloved in his hotel room.
At its best--in this scene, for example--the current Death of a Salesman is superb, because it clarifies and illuminates the play's themes so well. The truly successful men with whom Willy interacts--his boss Howard (Steve Pickering), his neighbor Charlie (Howard Witt), and his neighbor's son Bernard (Richard Thompson)--are all enacted here with enormous intelligence and compassion: their homely groundedness makes for a bitter contrast with Willy's lost, questing soul. Mr. Thompson's Bernard, for example, whom we see both as a gangly, pesky youth and as a successful and happily married attorney, exudes a simple and open humanity that has entirely eluded Willy. And Mr. Witt's Charlie, possessed of a more calloused world view than others I've seen, points up what confidence combined with humility combined with overarching honesty can do for a man; again, strongly contrasted with Willy's empty bravado.
The production is less successful in showing us Willy's family. Elizabeth Franz's Linda is alernately waiflike and shrewish, hardly the helpmeet that Willy needs to sustain him. And as Willy's sons, neither Kevin Anderson (Biff) nor Ted Koch (Happy) ever convinces us of the blind devotion these two once had for their father or for each other: this Loman family, which needs-be must thrive on mutual deception and illusion, feels wholly disconnected. I never believed that these people loved each other; lacking a palpable bond, there is no impact when it is broken.
Brian Dennehy's Willy, interestingly, rises and falls with his co-stars. In his scenes with Charlie, Bernard, and Howard he is wonderful, showing us Willy's delusion and desperation, nakedly and eloquently. But in scenes at home, he is less of a piece, here all bluster and bloat, there a pathetic, sad-eyed lost soul. In the scene where we first see Willy with his sons, they should believe the outright lies he tells them about his life on the road, and for a moment we should believe them, too; they don't, and neither do we. I think, too, that Mr. Dennehy's Willy starts out rather too defeated by life, with the consequence that his dramatic journey is somewhat aborted.
Mr. Falls's staging is deliberately slow and stately, punctuated by leisurely, elaborate set changes that belie the dreamlike, cinematic quality we expect in this play (they are also inordinately noisy). These intervals give us time to reflect upon what we are seeing and hearing; unfortunately, they also give us time to focus on the play's flaws. And sometimes--as in the penultimate scene, when Happy and Biff return home from their aborted dinner with Willy--the sheer length of time required by the actors to get from one place to another on Mark Wendland's expansive set significantly reduces the dramatic tension. (One more quibble: why is Willy's older brother Ben rendered so very very old? And why, in this smokefree age, is it necessary for him to smoke an authentically malodorous cigar?)
I found things in this Death of a Salesman that I hadn't been aware of before, ideas that have run through my mind since I saw the play and that are compelling me to return to the text. For this, Robert Falls and his collaborators must be credited with success, even if they sometimes falter during the (too-long) three-hour running-time of this show. Death of a Salesman is an authentic classic and so--forgive me--attention must be paid.