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Disillusionment and despair loom darkly over Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. There are few leavening doses of humor to lessen the sting of big dreams gone unfulfilled and potential squandered in the tragic story of traveling salesman Willie Loman.
In the production currently at Ford’s, Craig Wallace, in the leading role, gives a passionate, unguarded performance that amplifies the play’s painful truths, heavily disguised by Loman’s deep-seated commitment to living up to every lie he ever told. Wallace anchors Death of a Salesman (★★★★) with the same authoritative presence and force of will that Willie Loman wields over his devoted wife, Linda (Kimberly Schraf), and sons Biff (Thomas Keegan) and Hap (Danny Gavigan). Biff and Hap’s eagerness to please Willie practically defined their childhoods — as much as their failure to achieve all that he or they had envisioned for their lives threatens to redefine their present and future.
Willie’s faculties are fading like their dreams, along with any distant memories of his fabled sales acumen. Intent, even in his near dementia, on being recognized for making his mark as a salesman, a businessman, a common sense philosopher, or at least as the father of two all-American successes, he rails at his family, in the present and in the past, for not always meeting his expectations.
Director Stephen Rayne rides the intensity of the Loman family’s fraying reality, and the ensemble responds with raw emotion that shrinks the voluminous Ford’s stage to the size of their cozy kitchen. Tim Mackabee’s set at first appears as addled as Willie’s mind, with its rising levels of rooms, stairs, and windows, layered over each other like photographic images superimposed by multiple exposure. But the structure makes sense. In Willie’s deteriorating state, perceptions of past and present do overlap and fold into one another, an effect beautifully suggested by the evocative sound design and original music by John Gromada.
Wade Laboissonniere’s period costumes also reflect the nuances of memory and fantasy woven into Willie’s reveries about his older brother, Ben (Frederick Strother). As younger Hap relates to Biff, so did Willie also grow up comparing himself, and acting as foil, to the more self-assured Ben. Strother seems to be having a fine time as Ben, the embodiment of Willie’s outsized ambition and aching self-doubt. By contrast, Schraf’s Linda, carrying much of the pain that Willie, Biff, and Hap won’t always acknowledge, lands perhaps a bit too far on the humorless side as the mother who was at home raising these sporting lads.
However, she ably brings the story home in the end, abetted by Keegan and Gavigan’s nuanced turns. Linda clearly nurses her own delusions, eagerly taking on the role of cheerleader for the Loman family, but Schraf also allows a glimpse at the depth of her denial. It’s a frightening chasm underlying her optimism, and neither she, nor her hopeful husband and sons, can keep life from sinking into that abyss.
Biff and Hap are too young to appear as defeated as they do, but there’s still hope for them, and for other American strivers with hope in their hearts, and big dreams on their minds.
Death of a Salesman runs through October 22 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 Tenth St. NW. Tickets are $25 to $62. Call 888-616-0270, or visit fords.org.
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