Willy Loman is a fixture in the collective American consciousness. From the first production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in 1949, the story of the last 24 hours in Willy’s life has enraptured audiences hungry for a poignant deconstruction of the futility of the American dream. A work so universal, so oft-repeated, and so potentially touching leaves a great deal of room for creative re-imagining, albeit to varying degrees of success. This year, Miller’s seminal work finds itself on the stage of Ford’s Theatre in a production that, for the most part, plays it safe.
This production finds Willy (Craig Wallace), his wife Linda (Kimberly Schraf), and their two adult sons Happy (Danny Gavigan) and Biff (Thomas Keegan) inhabiting a beautiful tiered set, complete with towering stacks of windows, gorgeous lighting design by Pat Collins, and some stirring, Copland-esque original scoring by John Gromada. While the staging of this work is direct and easily understandable, it seems unnecessarily devoted to a standard reading of the text of the play. Tim Mackabee’s set and solid direction by Stephen Rayne allow for decent flow to the scenes themselves, but it seems that, at times, some of the play’s action could have benefited from a physical change of scenery.
For the most part, this production of Death of a Salesman is faithful to the text down to the letter. Wallace’s Willy is a shell of his former self, tormented by his own failures and his rapidly crumbling, formerly “perfect” family. Schraf does a standout job as Linda, bringing her to life as a multidimensional matriarch struggling with her husband’s fall from grace. Keegan and Gavigan provide some strong scene work as Happy and Biff, respectively, and the family dynamic between the four leads provides for some truly gripping moments, even among some of the more standard production choices.
This production does deviate from the usual Salesman retelling in one key way, however – Craig Wallace’s Willy Loman is a black man in an otherwise white Brooklyn. This casting choice is timely, and it opens countless paths for new interpretations of this classic work. As a result, some of the play’s most enduring scenes carry new, profound depth. Willy is no longer a failure as a salesman just because of his own inability – he is affected by the world around him, with discrimination and racism beating down on him and feeding into the cycle of torment he endures until his untimely demise.