Merchant of Menace

The Goodman Theatre's Death of a Salesman is stunning

Nov 22, 2000 at 4:00 am
The first few moments of the Goodman Theatre's deservedly Tony Award-winning version of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman evoke the original cover with great wit and style: Lights down, then a jazzy crash of string and brass (composer Richard Woodbury's noir-ish score, which discreetly ornaments the show). Centerstage scrims surround a door, which flies open at the crescendo. A sunbright upstage spotlight silhouettes the American Everyman at midcentury -- Willy Loman (Brian Dennehy).

Threatening? Defeated? Perhaps both. Willy, monumental in his overcoat, holds a valise in each hand and steps forward. As he does, the scrims part and stagehands swing the lower story of the Loman household into place behind him. Willy crosses around the moving set. And as the illuminated 1940s kitchen comes into place, he turns and enters his domain. Within a line or two, he tells anxious wife Linda "Nothing happened," and you realize the entire story has been recapitulated in a few moments of stagecraft and dialogue.

Willy is at the mercy of forces larger than himself -- which, paradoxically, include himself. Demoted, he's back on the road working for commission and is about to have a reunion with his two adult sons, Biff and Happy. He's raised them to think of themselves as princes, yet these two knaves abandon him, though not without a struggle.

Director Robert Falls makes ample use of mechanics -- sets glide in and out; turntables rotate setpieces. Yet the human center of this epic tragedy is omnipresent. Willy is one of Miller's cruelest challenges for an actor; the part vacillates between vulnerability and arrogance, exhaustion and agitation. Dennehy is simply superb. As the long-suffering Linda, Elizabeth Franz manages a similarly staggering emotional range gracefully and intelligently. In the famous "Attention must be paid" speech, she chides her errant sons with a maternal fury that's Greek in scale -- a Clytemnestra without sin.

Ted Koch and Steve Cell are completely true as brothers Biff and Happy. As they bounce on their toes, you can see Willy, man and boy, in both. Howard Witt's Charley and Richard Thompson's Bernard, the father/son duo who play Willy and Biff's would-be saviors, are droll and solid -- ideal foils for so many of Willy's comments on the human condition: "He's liked. But he's not well-liked."

Death of a Salesman still packs a wallop, and not just because it's about bad parenting, the human cost of capitalism, the perils of hubris and the inevitability of delusion. With this dark and insightful production, it says something utterly novel about all this and more.