The Lomans are lost. The family in Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman (★★★★★) has worked hard, persevered, and followed the unwritten rule book of success that promises a life of contentment. Yet unsettling feelings of regret and aimlessness persist. Even with a respectable home, Willy (Wendell Pierce) wants more. “The street is lined with cars. There’s not a breath of fresh air in the neighborhood. The grass don’t grow any more, you can’t raise a carrot in the back yard,” he grumbles after coming home early on a business trip.
This is 1949 Brooklyn, the same year that Miller’s tragedy premiered on Broadway. Since then, it’s been revived four times on New York stages. Each production was critically lauded and showered with Tony nominations and wins for both cast members and creative teams.
The A-list of actors who have conquered the role of Willy through the years include George C. Scott, Dustin Hoffman, Brian Dennehy, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Those who have played Willy’s wife, Linda, include stage veterans Joy Franz and Linda Emond. Despite the accolades, none of these productions have ever included actors of color.
For Salesman, it turns out that the fifth time is a charm to reimagine our preconceived portrait of the Loman family.
Premiering in London’s West End in 2019 under the direction of Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell, this riveting interpretation recently arrived at the Hudson Theatre with Cromwell solely at the helm. It’s a drama lover’s feast that grounds itself in solid performances and top-tier production values.
Pierce, best known for television roles on The Wire, Treme, and Suits leads a cast that includes fellow black actors Sharon D Clarke (last seen on Broadway in Caroline, or Change) as Linda, Khris Davis as the eldest son, Biff, and McKinley Belcher III as the amiable, but shifty youngest son, Happy.
Theater legend Andre De Shields, fresh from his Tony-winning performance in Hadestown, rounds out the Loman family as Ben, Willy’s older, more affluent brother who embodies everything Willy desires. “When I was seventeen, I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out… And by God I was rich!” Ben exclaims to Happy and Biff. Life has not afforded Willy and his family this same good fortune.
The remainder of the cast is caucasian — a slick casting decision that adds layers of depth to this story, particularly between Willy and his boss, Howard (Blake DeLong). The power that Howard lords over his employee is unwieldy and troubling to witness. It’s even harder for Willy to endure. Charley (Delaney Williams), a family friend, loans Willy money and offers him a job, but Willy refuses, offering no explanation. It’s obvious that Willy, rightfully, does not want white Saviorism to be his salvation.
The difficult truth of Miller’s classic is that there is no redemption for Willy Loman. If ever that is in question, refer to the play’s title. Through flashbacks and memories (staged to great effectiveness with Jen Schriever’s lighting design and a haunting jazz score by Femi Temowo), we delve deeper into the psyche of Willy Loman.
Pierce, reprising his Olivier-nominated performance, is a welcome addition to the list of other esteemed actors who have played the role. On the surface, Willy is not endearing, but Pierce manages to unveil his flaws and complexities. Consequently, this allows us to empathize and relate to his broken humanity.
Clarke should also join the pantheon of stellar actors who have given voice to Linda. It is easy to view Mrs. Loman as an enabler, but ultimately, she is doing the best she can to keep the family together. Clarke delivers a gut-wrenching performance that should not be forgotten when Tony nominations are considered.
Davis and Belcher III also turn out award-worthy performances here. Both men are products of a broken man who is the product of a broken system.
Depressing though it is, Miller’s timeless tragedy might serve as a mirror, forcing us to admit our failures and inadequacies. Or it can be viewed as a cautionary tale, challenging us to reject Thoreau’s notion that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Either way, this cerebral and stunning production is one that will be remembered long after the curtain falls.
Death of a Salesman runs through Jan. 15 at the Hudson Theatre, 141 West 44th St. New York.
Tickets are $58 to $265.
Visit www.thehudsonbroadway.com or call 855-801-5876.
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