3 December 2000: Miller, Death of a Salesman

Schubert Theatre, Boston

Robert Falls’s Tony-award winning production on tour. Willy: Brian Dennehy, Linda: Elizabeth Franz, Biff: Ted Koch, Happy: Steve Cell. Playing time: 3-1/2 hours

A stunning production of the play. Dennehy is wonderful, a great walrus of a Willy. The New York accent is flawless. Lynda’s is a different style; Franz has a tremolo in her voice reminiscent of Mildred Dunnock. Each in their own way is splendid. There is much deep feeling in this production. Falls is quoted in a program interview as saying he wanted to achieve a sense of vertigo, a sense that Willy was heading towards suicide. This accords with Miller’s own idea that if Willy could remember enough he would kill himself.

In pursuit of his sense of the play Falls makes an entire departure from the original production and subsequent productions that followed — i.e., imitated — it. The stage is a double, concentric revolve, and often the main, inner revolve is turning one way while the perimeter revolve is going in the other. Falls replaces the flute music at the start with harsh, ominous orchestral music somewhat like Shostakovich; and the scrim of leaves superimposed upon the residential Brooklyn skyline is gone, supplanted by large — very tall — dark blue-grey scrim panels, in whose center is a large box-wagon with a dark front door through which, at the start, Willy emerges (to great applause), sample cases in hand. There is a kind of double wagon representing Willy’s house — bedroom at audience’s left, kitchen at right. A separate wagon is the boys’ bedroom. The combination of moving wagons, sometimes rotating on a central axis, with the moving revolve provides a very fluid means of scene shifting, while also contributing to the overall whirling effect Falls evidently has in mind.

The production is very articulate and beautifully paced, and the whole is extremely effective, gripping. I have seldom felt such dynamic, electrified silences. Dennehy is not afraid to take his time, and his pauses in the course of the speech are generous — evidence of extreme mental turmoil. When he explains, “The woods are burning!” We readily believe it; we have already known it.

Dennehy is a big, burly, powerful actor with a voice to match. All the actors are miked; sometimes I find this distracting and inappropriate, but here it worked — and I was grateful for the clarity, from the sixth row of the Schubert mezzanine; every last word was audible, and it was only once, when Linda laid her head against Willy’s chest while continuing to speak that her voice got a little bit too close to Willy’s mike (she heard it and turned her head away slightly, at once). The test of a competent miking and sound system is the upper level of volume and decibels. Dennehy’s Willy is an explosive force, at full throttle in many moments; yet I was never conscious of an overloaded sound system. In fact, like everyone else in the theatre, I was deep inside Willy’s head.

In the interview Falls said he wanted the entire play to be presented as if from Willy’s viewpoint. He succeeded in this. The convention of Miller’s script, in which Willy is distracted from his present circumstances by something that jogs his memory and precipitates him back into the past is alive and well in Falls’s production; indeed, he handles these retrospective sequences very clearly and imaginatively, using the fluidity of the revolving stage and scenic surround — notably, the great rectangular panels of scrim, formally yet carefully lighted from in front or behind — to make seamless transitions into Willy’s subjective past and then, at the end of the sequence, to make an abrupt, jarring return to the present.

Falls also has an eye for telling detail. In only one instance did I think he had overstepped: when Linda, holding Willy’s suit jacket for him to put on, follows him ten feet or more across the stage, still holding it open and ready — to the amusement of the audience; but it was an old comedy routine, extrinsic to the dramatic moment, and distracting. Most other such touches were entirely in character and dramatically apt. Perhaps the most notable of these was Linda’s gesture, in the Requiem at the end: at first kneeling at Willy’s grave, and then falling prostrate over it, she moves her right hand in a circular motion, as if smoothing the earth newly heaped upon it — an eloquent, moving gesture, which is repeated a few moments later. The repetition was not too much; somehow it solidified Linda’s feeling of being at a loss to understand the reason for Willy’s suicide, unable to grieve, and yet by instinct smoothing the earth in a quieting, calming gesture. That gesture, and its repetition, become in fact the catalyst by which Linda finally breaks down and cries, sobs. We still hear the sounds after the lights go out and the stage, and the theatre, are held in a long moment of lightless solitude as we sense the magnitude and gravity of the loss.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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