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Death of a Salesman
at the Athenaeum Theatre
Director Sean Graney manages to make Death of a Salesman young again, freeing it from the burden of audience fatigue with the familiar speeches. It’s a script well suited to the Hypocrites’ artistic director, addressing the ephemerality of success and the dangers of seeking it at any cost (Graney was recently awarded a prestigious career development grant in directing from the National Endowment for the Arts). Where many productions of Arthur Miller’s play focus on the dashed dreams of middle age, Graney locates its tragedy in Willy’s original sin: insisting on molding his elder son, Biff, into a big man on campus. Cast adrift, incapable of seeing himself whole in the world, Biff is alone with his hazy but aching desire for freedom and authenticity.
Graney weaves together Willy Loman’s past and present with a tensile intelligence and visual elan, thanks in large part to the clever metaphorical set he designed with Jim Moore. Mismatched doors hung at odd angles encircle the small playing area, representing all the missed opportunities and badly concealed lies that plague Willy and Biff. The Loman kitchen is a white-tiled oasis of reality in Willy’s rapidly deteriorating mental world. And thanks to Charles Cooper’s graceful lighting and Michael Griggs’s increasingly uneasy sound cues, the shifts between Willy’s memories and his present-day life are seamless.
The design isn’t the only element that makes this production fresh. Graney cast real-life couple Bill and Donna McGough as Willy and Linda, a choice that might have backfired: not all married actors are as good together onstage as the Lunts. But the McGoughs bring a lived-in believability to the script’s small domestic moments. When Willy pulls Linda onto his lap for a brief canoodle before heading out to what he (mistakenly) believes will be a great day, it allows a glimpse of why Linda fights so hard for him. Though Willy is sometimes harsh to Linda and stinting with his emotions, he’s also capable of revealing his vulnerabilities in a way that she alone understands, and McGough’s Linda makes it clear that she treasures that intimacy, giving the famous “attention must be paid” speech a natural fire and clarity.
When Dustin Hoffman played Willy on Broadway in 1984, he restored the character to Miller’s original vision: the playwright described him as “a very small man who wears little shoes and little vests.” Still, the dominant image of Willy as a slouching behemoth was established by Lee J. Cobb on Broadway in 1949 and recently reinforced by Brian Dennehy. McGough is tall but not broad, and he looks younger than Willy’s 60 years. Still, the actor’s thinning hair, pinched voice, and beginning of a stoop signal Willy’s waning pride and ultimate defeat. When Willy complains about their overbuilt Brooklyn neighborhood, saying “You gotta break your neck to see a star,” McGough can barely rotate his head skyward. Donna McGough’s Linda is smaller and more patrician than “the big and broadchested” aunt Miller used as the model for Linda (a model demolished when the birdlike Mildred Dunnock played opposite Cobb). But many of McGough’s readings have a spitfire intensity, and her cataclysmic second-act confrontation with the anguished Biff and his callow younger brother, Happy, is remarkable. So remarkable, in fact, that Graney’s decision to repeat it as a dumb show immediately afterward, as a backdrop to Willy wrestling with the impulse to kill himself, doesn’t feel precious or self-indulgent. Instead this choice allows the play’s two worlds to coexist and collide.
If McGough is a little young for Willy, Robert McLean seems a little old for Biff. And in his first scene with Ryan Bollettino’s comically pathetic glad-hander Happy, he doesn’t make it clear enough how close to a breakdown Biff is, undercutting the way Miller and Graney mirror Biff’s and Willy’s lives. But McLean builds the character with precision, particularly in the second act. The supporting cast is seldom short of excellent, with lovely understated turns by Kurt Ehrmann and Christopher Meister as Charley and Bernard, the father-son duo whose easy affection stands in stark contrast to the tension between Willy and Biff.
The emotional palette of the Hypocrites’ production tends to be muted and strained rather than expansive, which makes the play’s spiky outbursts all the more effective: there are many riches scattered throughout this vital, imaginative show’s three hours. But it’s in the final 15 minutes that Graney’s vision of Miller’s world comes together with breathtaking force.
When: Through 10/16: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM
Where: Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Margaret Laikin.