May 13, 2009

A Different Life for "Death of a Salesman"

The great thing about a great play is that you can see it a zillion times and still see something different in it with each viewing. I was reminded of that after my husband K and I took the train down to New Haven to see the new production of Death of A Salesman at the Yale Repertory Theatre.

This slightly controversial version of Arthur Miller’s masterpiece isn’t the best I’ve seen but it touched me in ways the play hadn’t before and it made me wonder if Death of A Salesman isn’t the greatest American play ever written. This comes from a woman who loves herself some Eugene O’Neill, reveres August Wilson and would walk over hot coals to see a good production of a Tennessee Williams classic.

But more than any of the other contenders for the honor, Miller, particularly in this play, grapples head-on with the contradictions of the American dream and his everyman characters assume a grandeur of truly epic proportions. “He is writing as an American with an affectionate understanding of American family, people and their problems; and everybody recognizes in his tragic play things that they know are poignantly true,” wrote the New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson when the play opened in February, 1949 for what would become a then-impressive two and a half year run.

The point of controversy about the current production, which is scheduled to run only through May 23, is that the entire cast is African-American. What black man, the purists asks, could sit in downtown hotels, ordering steaks, drinking whiskey and swapping stories with other salesman during the first half of the 20th century the way the play’s eponymous protagonist Willy Loman so fondly recalls? How many black boys, they want to know, could go west and find a job on a cattle ranch the way Willy’s beloved but feckless son Biff so desperately longs to do?

To which I say, don’t get hung up on the details. The yearnings and the disappointments of people struggling for a toehold in life are the same, regardless of skin color. Over the past 60 years, Miller’s play has been performed all over the world by actors of all ethnicities and it has hit home everywhere. Although I confess that some of what moved me in the Yale Rep production may have been the fact that the actors look like me. Or maybe it was that I am moving closer to the age of Willy and his long-suffering wife Linda and can more fully appreciate their wonder at where the time has gone and why they haven’t made better use of it.

This production came into being because the actor Charles Dutton, who got his start at Yale 25 years-ago when he appeared in the original production of Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, wanted to play Willy. (Click here to read a Playbill interview with him.) Dutton has always been a powerhouse of an actor and he is here too. But he is at times so commanding that his forcefulness masks some of the fragility that makes Willy’s fall so sad. And yet, I found myself wiping away tears as his Willy, small flashlight in hand, tries to plant a garden in the dark in one final gesture of doomed optimism.

Linda Loman is an equally tough role and I so clearly remember being blown away by Elizabeth Franz’s shattering performance when she played opposite Brian Dennehy in the 1999 Broadway revival that it took me a while to adjust to Kimberly Scott’s approach to the role. Her Linda is more robust, more practical than Franz’s or others I’ve seen. Scott occasionally stumbles—she proclaims, rather than speaks, the famous "attention must be paid" speech—but she still manages to makes Linda the stout-hearted center of the family. Ato Essandoh and Billy Eugene Jones are less successful as the Loman sons and resort too often to histrionics. Both seem to be promising young actors but their chops aren’t yet tight enough for such formidable roles.

That may be because African-American actors get too few opportunities to develop all the muscles they need for major roles in the theatrical canon. August Wilson has been a one-man jobs program for black actors but his plays and those by many black playwrights are rooted in the dynamics of race. These roles give the actors the same emotions to play. “You get tired of angsting about race on stage and having to dredge all of that race stuff up all the time,” Scott explained during the talkback session that followed the Saturday matinee K and I attended. “I want to explore other things. I want to do my Margarets,” she added, referring to the queens in Shakespeare's Richard III and Henry VI.

I hope she gets that chance. In the meantime, I’m glad she and the rest of the cast got this one with Death of A Salesman.


Nick said...

I love this site. Your love for the theater is so deep. Your posts are a joy to read.

Thanks you!

jan@broadwayandme said...

Nick, thank you so much for the kind and encouraging words. I hope you'll keep reading and commenting too. Cheers, jan

Nick said...

Thanks Jan! Your love for the theater is so evident and your writing is beautiful. You are seeing all the plays I would like to see and your reviews make me feel as if I were there. That's wonderful!