For over 73 years, “Death of a Salesman” has gotten away with its foreboding title. Ironically, no play in the theater canon better asserts its characters’ aliveness. Sure, Willy Loman’s demons loom. The show’s opening scene details the weary-of-travel traveling salesman’s pesky tendencies to drive recklessly, contradict himself and ramble into the void. But bad habits and hysteria are hardly death sentences. It’s not until Willy’s wife, Linda, tells the couple’s two sons, Biff and Happy, that their father is courting eternity, that we truly tap into what is at stake here: suicide. Still, not for one minute during the 190 of the current revival at the Hudson Theatre — where so much of Willy’s achingly complicated life is on display — did I feel nervous about his death.
Over time, a lot has been made of the universality of “Death of a Salesman” and how this story — which in most major productions has centered on a white family in the 1940s — retains contemporary relevance across race, gender and time. The current Broadway staging, in which dark-skinned Black actors have been cast as the Lomans, proves the opposite to be true. While as written, Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” can claim ubiquitousness, director Miranda Cromwell’s production — which stars Wendell Pierce as Willy, Sharon D Clarke as Linda, Khris Davis as Biff and McKinley Belcher III as Happy — is a pointed investigation of Black survival. Scenes that call for a Loman to interact with someone outside the family (mostly portrayed by white actors) tilt in the face of racial discrimination: Willy being infantilized by his much younger white boss, Biff being ushered to the back of a restaurant by a white server, or even Happy’s boasts of sexually “ruining” the young wives of executive managers. Not a lick of Miller’s script has been altered, and yet, we’re given reams of new subtext about the anxiety, trauma, stress and stakes at hand.
“Death of a Salesman” is one of the American theater’s finest works and, remarkably, Cromwell has taken an even sharper tool to it, toggling expertly between naturalistic and stylistic sensibilities. When Willy has his wits about him, he is jubilant and unexpectedly funny with a towering stature that reminds me of my father’s. When he is bum-rushed by his memories, eerie voices layer, guitar strings twang (original music is by Femi Temowo) and the other actors click into a variety of poses. Rather than rely on other characters to talk about Willy’s fractured state of mind, Cromwell stages fracture itself. And speaking of stage, Anna Fleischle’s multidimensional set allows for the Lomans’ home to simply but effectively transform into hotel room, office, restaurant — key markers of any bustling city. Platforms push in and out, serving as a playground for Jen Schriever’s exceptional lighting and, just as important, shadow work.
Pierce as Willy Loman is a gift as good as any you’d find on Christmas morning. The man is no stranger to memorable performances (Bunk in “The Wire,” Clarence Thomas in “Confirmation” and my personal favorite: the sweaty Michael Davenport in “Waiting to Exhale”), but here he has surpassed his own esteem. His operatic voice travels from commanding to croaking in a single breath. With remarkable dexterity, he conjures blinding anger for his son, soft adoration for his wife and immense shame for himself. Close attention is paid to posture: We see Pierce as Willy feigning erection so the characters around him buy into this projection of a confident man, his most futile sale. And what to say of Clarke’s Linda? Or, rather, when to stop saying things? Most published editions of “Death of a Salesman” run over 100 pages long. I could easily scribble three times as much about Clarke’s emotionally textured performance. Linda’s support of her husband never yields, even when he dismisses her. She is both protective armor and striking sword. Willy’s relentless pursuit of being “well-liked”? Particularly tragic when he has a woman that loves him so damn well. Audience-captured video is never allowed in the theater, but boy if I wasn’t tempted to break that rule and cement these two titans on film. Hopefully, a monied producer will ask permission to do the same.
The culminating scene of “Death of a Salesman” is the one that earns the play its title. Linda has finally made the last payment on their house, but with her sons set to embark on new ventures and Willy gone, “there’ll be nobody home” to share it with. The death in question is not just of a salesman, but of a Black family’s very simple dream: to care, clothe and love on one another. Not on time that’s borrowed, but time they own.
“Death of a Salesman” opened at the Hudson Theatre on Sunday, Oct. 9, 2022.
Review photo: Joan Marcus.
Creative: Written by Arthur Miller; Original music by Femi Temowo; Directed by Miranda Cromwell; Scenic Design by Anna Fleischle; Co-Costume Design by Anna Fleischle and Sarita Fellows; Lighting Design by Jen Schriever; Sound Design by Mikaal Sulaiman; Hair Design by Nikiya Mathis.
Producers: Cindy Tolan, Elliott & Harper Productions, Kwame Kwei-Armah, Steven Chaikelson, Gavin Kalin, Hunter Arnold, Catherine Schreiber, Bob Boyett, Brian D. Kessler, Michael Watt, Eileen Davidson, Chuchu Nwagu Productions, David Mirvish, Playing Field, Tom Saporito, Triptyk Studios, Iris Smith, LD Entertainment, Salman Al-Rashid, Concord Theatricals, Lamar Richardson, JamRock Productions, Young Vic Young Ones, Jamie deRoy/James L. Simon, TackelRaven/Louise H. Beard, Ferguson Simons/Marjuan Canady, Al Nocciolino/Blumenthal Performing Arts, Phenomenal Media & Meena Harris and The Young Vic (Kwame Kwei-Armah, Artistic Director; Despina Tsatsas, Executive Director).
Cast: Sharon D Clarke, Wendell Pierce, McKinley Belcher III, Khris Davis, André De Shields, Blake DeLong, Lynn Hawley, Grace Porter, Kevin Ramessar, Stephen Stocking, Chelsea Lee Williams and Delaney Williams.