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Death of a Salesman

Harris Yulin gives a strong performance as Willy Loman in Dublin's Gate Theatre's production of Arthur Miller's landmark drama. logo
Harris Yulin in Death of a Salesman
(Photo courtesy of the company)
In a country that chased dreams of wealth so hard it was once called the Celtic Tiger -- only to be bitten so badly by the Great Recession that unemployment now hovers at nearly 14 percent -- a production of Arthur Miller's great play Death of a Salesman can be expected to have a particular resonance. And even if director David Esbjornson's production at Dublin's Gate Theatre has its flaws, Miller's 1949 post-World War II indictment of America's shallow ideas of success still cuts deeply in a world where greed and consumerism have shaken both financial empires and ordinary lives.

Indeed, is not hard today to identify with the despair felt by salesman Willy Loman (Harris Yulin) as he is fired at the age of 63 by a younger man who has just shown off a new tape recorder with which he intends to "record Jack Benny on the radio" -- marvelously foreshadowing an age of proliferating electronic toys.

Yulin brings a frayed dignity and the memory of elegance to Willy, who has reached the last day of his life betrayed by nearly everything: the idea that being "well-liked" is the key to business success; his sons, Biff (Garrett Lombard) and Happy (Rory Nolan), who slide through life having inherited their father's hollow moral spine; and the country that dangles happiness in the form of houses, cars, and kitchen appliances. The one person loyal to him, his wife Linda (Dierdre Donnelly), he dismisses with the casual cruelty of the male household.

Both Yulin and Donnelly seem to be searching with their eyes for something unfathomable in the distance, an answer, perhaps, to the question of why a nation "full of beautiful towns and the finest people" seems to have let them down. While Yulin convincingly communicates Willy's descent into a swirl of painful memories, he occasionally edges close to whining. Similarly, Linda's anger never sharpens and her demand that "attention must be paid" to Willy's suffering doesn't carry the snap it should.

Lombard and Nolan don't resemble each other physically, and Lombard's American accent doesn't seem comfortably seated, but their hearty male football-and-girls camaraderie clearly follows the path set out by their father. Stephen Brennan, as Willy's brother Ben -- the real success in the family with business interests in Alaska -- makes a strong appearance in a white suit as glittering as an iceberg.

In smaller roles, John Kavanagh as neighbor Charley and Barry McGovern's waiter Stanley are decidedly not at ease with American speech. Barbara Griffin, as the unnamed Woman with whom Willy maintains an on-the-road affair, flirts and giggles her way into Willy's hotel room but retains a shred of bewildered pride.

Overall, the production drags somewhat, suffering from both an overly gloomy atmosphere and a certain sameness in the emotional temperature of many scenes. Designer Michael Pavelka's set features a looming brownstone wall with rows of windows cantilevered from the rear of the stage and a tree whose branches break through the windows. It's an intriguing visual idea at the beginning of the play, but it becomes oppressive and static by the end.

However, Esbjornson fluidly uses the stage, furnishings and auditorium as past and present meld in Willy's mind, and Denis Clohessy's delicate music and sound design, Elizabeth Hope Clancy's serviceable costumes, and Mick Hughes' restrained lighting all make fine contributions to this often worthwhile production.

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