“A Play About America That Looks Like America!” announce the posters for the revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, now at the Hudson and featuring four Black actors as the tormented Loman family. Salesman, a contender for our greatest play, has always looked like America–it knows our hopes and aspirations, our failures and disappointments, and the everyday self-deceptions that allow us to skate by, more and more narrowly, until we can’t. But the updated casting, reflecting the universality of its themes, is long overdue–after all it was about forty years ago that the playwright himself went to Beijing and directed a production that looked like China.
But I was never quite sure what I was buying from this Salesman. It’s not an easy play to pull off; memories of a deceptively happy past collide with a present of limited prospects, and naturalism jostles with abstraction. The last, Tony Award-winning Broadway revival, directed by a Tony-winning Mike Nichols and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Linda Emond, Andrew Garfield and Finn Wittrock a decade ago, got it right, presenting it exactly as it was first staged in 1949, in amber in a sense but still breathing, still fighting. I noted at the time that by the end of the play the actors and the audience should be half-dead from the struggle to keep its candor about money and self-worth and the elusive American dream from crushing us all, and so we were. A shattering production.
But it needn’t, and couldn’t, be repeated. (It marked the last major work for its director and star, both deceased in 2014.) And so this Salesman, a West End import directed by Miranda Cromwell, goes its own way. It’s strongest in the corporeal realm, with Wendell Pierce, a gently commanding presence on The Wire (remember “soft eyes”?) and much else besides, barnstorming across the stage as Willie before winding down and unraveling. There to pick him up, as she’s done many times to the detriment of herself and her family, is Tony nominee Sharon D Clarke (Caroline, or Change) as Linda. Their sons, who bear the weight of their evasions, are movingly played by McKinley Belcher III (as the seemingly contented but never quite Happy) and Khris Davis (the betrayed, sad-eyed Biff). The family dynamic is the best part of the revival.
Cromwell has elected to cast the rest of the show with white actors. Fans of The Wire will be pleased to see Pierce reunited with his castmate Delaney Williams (as Charley, Willy’s friend, whom he envies) but the addition of a racial element complicates the show. Would Willy have a white boss? Or a white friend, or mistress, in 1949? There are nods to making this more credible, like Willy recounting being provoked by an unheard slur, or Willy and his sons being moved to the back of the restaurant where they meet toward the end of the show. But they’re only gestures toward a much different reality for Blacks at the time, one that Miller wasn’t addressing with the metaphorical Everyman of Willy. (August Wilson’s Fences is a kind of answer to what this production is hinting at.)
The show also leans in too hard on its abstract side, with the suggestive, suspended set elements flying on and off and the spectral appearances of Ben, Willy’s harder-nosed and more prosperous brother, announced with generous amount of ghostly fog. (Resplendent in a white suit, André De Shields looks to have taken the last train in from Hadestown, his prior gig.) Off-putting sound and lighting cues slash through some of the dialogue and the two sons are required to act like boys in the flashbacks, which is grating. Pierce, in particular, has to work hard to keep pace with the hectic (and very “British showmanship”) concept, and whipsaws between jaunty and disillusioned. Likewise having Clarke sing soulfully at the close gives this very hard play too soft a landing.
But–there’s no good reason not to see Death of a Salesman, and four good reasons to do so. “Attention must be paid,” as Linda insists, regarding her husband. It’s unfortunate that too much of our attention is directed away from the text, which still sears more than 70 years later.