"Death of a Salesman"
Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven
If you’ve seen “Death of a Salesman” numerous times, you realize that each experience gives the viewer new insights into the human condition. As with Shakespearean dramas, this great Arthur Miller play continues to offer up new riches—and continues to weather the passing years. In this one drama, Miller develops such timely and timeless themes as the struggle for survival, the need for love and respect, the emphasis on materialism, the prickliness of family relations.
These themes are once more explored in the current Yale Rep production, with varying degrees of success. James Bundy, Yale’s artistic director, directs an all-black production, a choice which has its pros and cons. For starters, it provides work for black actors in an otherwise restricted field—and it offers a new twist to a familiar play. Moreover, it settles the ongoing debate of Willy Loman’s ethnicity. Are the Lomans—or are they not—Jewish? Clearly, this time around, they are not.
But is this piece a good fit? Does it make sense for the Lomans to be a black family? It may be that in the late 1940s there were blacks who fitted into the lower middle-class, with salesmen husbands and stay-at-home wives. But in that pre-civil rights period, it would seem to be less likely.
But on suspending disbelief and accepting this theatrical reality, one experiences a visceral reaction to the Miller tale. There is a deep, gritty reality to this Loman family, thanks to its fine actors, with the excellent Charles Dutton in the title role. Though Dutton tends to be over-blustery, too often lifting his voice to shouting level, he gives a thoroughly human dimension to his Willy Loman. His sufferings, his inadequacies, his denials are all larger than life, turning Miller’s modern tale into classic tragedy. And Kimberly Scott as Linda Loman also gives a strong, feisty performance, though she lacks the kind of vulnerability one usually associates with this role. Ato Essandoh and Billy Eugene Jones, as the Loman sons, also give solid portrayals, as do others in smaller roles.
Finally, a word about Scott Dougan’s spectacular stage design. The story plays out against the background of tall apartment houses which hover over the Lomans. It is Brooklyn and more than Brooklyn. All told, it is a polished production, with design work in place (Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting, Sarah Pickett’s sound, and Katherine O’Neill’s costumes). And Bundy pulls it together smoothly and at a fast-moving clip which never palls.
In short, this is a “Death of a Salesman” worthy of attention. As Miller says in the play itself, “attention must be paid.”
-- Irene Backalenick
May 8, 2009