Craig Wallace (Willy Loman) and Kimberly Schraf (Linda) in Death of a Salesman, directed by Stephen Rayne, at Ford's Theatre.
Craig Wallace (Willy Loman) and Kimberly Schraf (Linda) in Death of a Salesman, directed by Stephen Rayne, at Ford's Theatre.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Many consider Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman to be his finest play. It's a work that emphasizes the hollowness and bitterness of a generation that lived through the Great Depression, hoping for salvation through material success, only to find that success a meaningless delusion. Now, Ford's Theatre is giving a very polished production to Salesman, one that leaves no doubt as to why this play has remained so beloved since it was first produced in 1949.

The play takes place in the late 1940s. It is a montage of present-day fact mixed with daydreams, memories, and hallucinations, which make up the last 24 hours of Willy Loman's life. A 63-year-old salesman who has spent his adult life making sales calls through the northeastern United States, Willy and his wife, Linda, have two grown sons, Biff and Happy, and have lived in the same house for the last 25 years. Willy is not a successful father, a faithful husband, or an above-average salesman, as he brags he is. Rather, he is an egotist who doesn't appreciate his wife and children and cannot acknowledge his failure as a salesman.

The play begins with Willy coming home exhausted after a sales trip. Biff has unexpectedly returned from working in Texas as a ranch hand and Happy has come home to see Biff. The brothers reminisce about their childhood and discuss their father's mental state. Both have noticed his indecisiveness and daydreaming. Willy walks in, furious that the two boys have never amounted to anything. Trying to calm their father, Biff and Happy tell their father that Biff plans to make a business proposition to an old friend the next day.

But the friend doesn't come through as hoped and Biff decides to return to the West. Willy becomes embroiled in an argument with Biff as a result. There had been tension and anger between Willy and Biff for many years, stemming from the fact that Biff once went to visit his father on a sales trip and found him in a hotel room with a woman. Biff never forgave Willy and now his anger spills out. Linda chooses to ignore the way Willy lives his life, but Biff never can. Ultimately, hoping to get life insurance money after his death, Willy determines to take his own life.

Craig Wallace is impressive as Willy Loman, displaying every facet of Loman's quirky, self-defeating personality: his anger, his resentment, his loneliness, his lust for his own and his sons' success. Kimberly Schraf is outstanding as Linda, who invariably sticks up for Willy, demanding that her sons — and by extension the world — pay attention to such a hard-working man.

Thomas Keegan is excellent in the role of Biff, a college football hero whose star burned out when he discovered his father's unfaithfulness. Keegan's Biff is a credible, sensitive soul, the only member of the family who rightly sees through Willy's bluff and bluster. Danny Gavigan is very good as Happy, playing him as a superficial, unthinking young man who believes that being well liked and having an attractive woman on your arm is enough to win you success in life.

Director Stephen Rayne keeps up the pace of the play, putting an emphasis on the rage bubbling up in Willy as he realizes that the American dream has eluded him. He also emphasizes Willy's humanity. This Willy Loman is not a monster, but a human being who feels the walls of modern society closing in on him.

Set designer Tim Mackabee indicates just how closed-in the Loman house is by placing window frames floor-to-ceiling on both sides of the stage. A small table and refrigerator downstage center implies the Loman kitchen and a raised platform stage right serves as the Lomans' bedroom and a hotel bedroom. Stage left, another raised platform serves as the boys' room.

Although Death of a Salesman highlights Willy's fantasies about fame, wealth, and success, it is not a criticism of Willy alone. Miller focused on the Loman family to illustrate how human beings can create order or disorder in their lives, how they can make themselves and everyone around them feel miserable or loved. The play — and this production particularly — is a sensitive psychological comment on the ways in which individuals can harm the people around them, creating continual spirals of fear, hypocrisy, and self-loathing.