Death of A Salesman

THE THEATER MIRROR, Boston's LIVE Theater Guide


"What Happened in Boston, Willy?"

note: entire contents copyright 1996 by Larry Stark

"Death of A Salesman"

                         Written by Arthur Miller
                        Directed by Gerald Freedman

                      Willy Loman........Hal Holbrook
                      Linda..... .....Elizabeth Franz
                      Biff...............Matt Mulhern
                      Happy...........John Speredakos
                      Bernard...........Spike McClure
                      The Woman......Maggie McClellan
                      Charley...........David Brummel
                      Uncle Ben............Ron Parady
                      Howard Wagner..........Bill Kux
                      Jenny................Kim Kozort
                      Stanley..........Hugh M. Murphy
                      Miss Forsythe......Eve Holbrook
                      Letta................Kim Kozort
                      Young Waiter.....Adam L. Koster

                       Set Design by Chris Barrecca
                        Costume Design by Al Kohout
                    Lighting Design by Martin Aronstein
                      Original Music by Larry Bailey
                Production Stage Manager Richard Constabile

                   at the COLONIAL THEATRE for one week
                       prior to its Broadway opening
                        106 Boylston Street. BOSTON

Everyone who has taken a Modern Theater course in the past 47 years probably believes they know what Arthur Miller's "Death of A Salesman" is all about. That's why everyone is so surprised seeing it on stage by how much is there they never noticed.

When Hal Holbrook's Willy Loman walks on stage he is really dead already of a sort of Alzheimer's of the spirit. Director Gerald Freedman has kept the humiliating truths of Willy's last 24-hours on earth at the forefront, and in every case underlines the fact that all his remembered triumphs always were, not just exaggerations, but lies. Willy's heart-rending tragedy is that, despite all his struggles, he comes at last to be unable to lie to himself.

His tragedy is also that the salesman philosophy --- the continual insistence that hope rather than experience will miraculously win the day --- so infests his two sons, and silences his long-suffering wife, that the four of them are destroyed. Biff, the adored elder son (Matt Mulhern), and Linda (Elizabeth Franz), can see the difference between truths and lies. She desperately supports her man, while Biff tries desperately to shout the truth through Willy's wall of illusion. At long last, though, this hasbeen breadwinner never had any life except his illusions, and without them he dies.

Hal Holbrook's Willy is a man of sixty, already talking to himself and to the ghosts of his past. Linda is the only person to whom he can admit his doubts, his mistakes, his failures, and his fears. Elizabeth Franz plays Linda as his necessary, encouraging helpmeet. She is protectively motherly to a husband whose mind is unravelling before our eyes, but directs her rages not at Willy, but at the two ineffectual sons whose maimed help she desperately needs.

As the apple of Willy's eye, Matt Mulhern's Biff cannot until the final moments articulate his wounded contempt for a life of illusions, because at the point he needed him most he caught his father in a monstrous lie. He is a Hamlet whose final self- assertion comes so late it is not a salvation, but a patricide.

John Spederakos as Happy, the ignored younger son, self- indulgently buys into his father's philosophy of life, idolizes him and Biff, and expertly ignores his own lies. He may actually be the son Willy expected Biff to become, but of course that blighting "success" can never compete with the hopes and illusions he and Willy both had for Biff.

As the play opened here on its way to Broadway, this volatile nuclear family were all already solidly aware of every nuance of their parts. It remains for the rest of the cast to reach full potential, since they represent a more mundane but a more honest chorus to the tragedy. David Brummel as Willy's no-nonsense neighbor and only true friend, Spike McClure as Charley's wimp-intellectual son Bernard --- ultimately more a success than even those dreamed for Biff --- and Bill Kux as Willy's young, hard-hearted boss have yet to find their counterpoising moments.

Willy's white-suited ideal of success, his Uncle Ben (Ron Parady) and the woman who is Willy's on-the road indiscretion (Maggie McClellan) were better played, perhaps because they are more obvious characters.

Chris Barrecca's set, with its melting and moving walls, puts much of the present-tense action on the left, leaving a wide center-line which Willy blunders across for most of his fantasies and memories --- though this division is, like the fuzzy division of Willy's mind, never hard, fast, and obvious.

This story of a man suddenly face to face with his own built-in obsolescence, making his last mortgage payment on the day of his own funeral, has been brought to stunningly contemporary vibrance by the principals, and no doubt it will go on to be the first straight-play smash success on Broadway in many long, thirsty years. And considering the matter of the play and the way the cast and Gerald Freedman have handled it, it seemed perfectly appropriate that Boston's opening night audience left the theater only to discover that Patrick Buchanan's outraged-working-man message had brought him victory in the New Hampshire primaries.

===larry stark

12:52 a m, opening night

THE THEATER MIRROR, Boston's LIVE Theater Guide