Reviewed by G.L. Horton
There isn't much to say about the production of "Death of a Salesman" that played Boston's Colonial Theatre at the end of February, on its way to Broadway. Yes, Arthur Miller's play and Hal Holbrook's acting are as good as their respective reputations would lead one to expect; and yes, both, like Niagara Falls or the Grand Canon, are familiar yet awe inspiring. The pleasure of a good performance of "Salesman" is much like that of hearing a really fine sermon, where the preacher applies a few simple insights in such a way as to bring home the connection between the congregation's daily life and some universal truth. As at that effective sermon, audiences dissolve in tears of pity and terror at the Loman family's fall: pity to see so much of hope and good intentions squandered; terror because it is so clear that we are all in the grip of this same fallen world, where loving relationships wither from lies, and fear, and ambition, and enforced silence.
Some Boston critics had reservations about Holbrook's performance, because unlike some celebrated Lomans of the past, Holbrook's Willie doesn't have much in the way of tragic stature. Holbrook is defeated and delusional from the first scene forward, his fate a foregone conclusion. But this subtraction of suspense from Willie's situation throws new light on the play, allowing the past and the future to come into focus more fully. Minor touches, such as one hinting at how the absence of Willie's own father forced him to invent his fathering from cultural prescriptions rather than personal experience of a father's love, are brought forward-- along with the perception that this is a family curse that will be working itself out over generations.
Elizabeth Frantz's Linda is warm and sensitive with her husband, coddling him almost as if he were a child with a terminal illness as his job slips away from him, measuring out to her weakening patient whatever dose of reality she thinks him strong enough to bear. On the other hand, Frantz is cold and withholding with Biff and Happy, making it clear that Linda's love for her sons has always been conditional on their acceptance of Willie's position as patriarch, and on the boys' collusion with her in maintaining Willie's spin-doctored version of the family history. Happy (John Seredakos) goes along for the ride, while Biff, (Matt Mulhern) burdened by Dad's idolatry, struggles to get a bit of the truth in edgewise. Biff is a great role, one that inspires young actors to get at something central to growing up male in America. I've never seen a bad Biff -- but Mulhern may be the best ever. Director Gerald Freedman has balanced the production so that Biff's final confrontation with his father is shattering. Unlike Willie, who goes to his death in a fog of denial, Biff understands -- and understands that his understanding is helpless against what's happening to them.
The other standout in a generally excellent cast is David Brummel's Charley. Brummel gives Charley an offhand integrity and a solidity that grounds the whole play. Chris Barreca has designed a very dark set that somehow provides both size and intimacy, and Martin Aronstein has lit it with expressionist beams that pick out hands and faces from the atmospheric murk.
"Salesman" hasn't dated. Except for wondering why Linda doesn't get a job, young people whose parents weren't even born when the play was written will have no trouble following the family dynamics. The vast changes in American society since Willie carried in his sample cases in 1949 have only made Loman and his family an ever-more-accurate mirror for most of us, who no longer work in factories or farms but are out there, like him, on a smile and a shoeshine, with a downsizer's pink slip lurking around the next corner. The question is, though: how many of us are going to be willing to pay Broadway prices to sit in the dark for three hours and watch Arthur Miller examine our collective soul?