Theater review: ‘Death of a Salesman’ at the Old Globe

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Jeffrey DeMunn may not be an obvious choice for Willy Loman, the protagonist of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” but he manages to assemble the character with his own distinctive qualities in Pam MacKinnon’s solid, if unusually stern, revival at the Old Globe.

A character actor with a compelling astringency who can be seen in the current AMC television series “The Walking Dead,” DeMunn is a master of sinister American undertones. The shambling, worn-out deportment of a traveling salesman from Brooklyn—“the kind of man you see muttering to himself on the subway,” as Miller once described him—would seem to be something of a stretch. DeMunn doesn’t exactly exude an exhausted Outer Borough aura. There’s too much steel left in him. But he does paint a convincing portrait of a blustering phony undone by a system that encouraged all his worst traits.

This is a tense and well-focused production. MacKinnon’s direction, rising as best she can to the challenge of figuring out the blocking for an arena-style theater, garners concentrated performances from her cast. But this is not a particularly heartbreaking encounter with the play. The dominant emotions are frustration and rage. Sadness has been relegated to the sidelines.

One problem is that the actors, while sharp individually, haven’t yet come together as an ensemble. The members of the Loman family notoriously have trouble relating to one another, but the connections here are tenuous to a fault. Robin Moseley, who casts a poignant image as Willy’s persevering wife, Linda, barely makes eye contact with her husband or sons. And Lucas Caleb Rooney’s gruff Biff seems strangely detached from his idolizing brother, Tyler Pierce’s pretty boy Happy. In truth, it’s only when these characters are hollering that they’re genuinely interacting.

Whether this is an interpretive strategy or a sign that performers haven’t yet settled into their roles is hard to say. But the result is a production that is more alienated and bitter than usual. Willy’s death comes almost as a relief at the end—the only chance for his survivors to move beyond their misery. This may be tragic, but it falls short of catharsis.

What’s most intriguing about DeMunn’s performance is the intense connection he makes between Willy’s attitudes and the American rat race. This isn’t a case study of isolated character flaws but an X-ray into the nation’s soul. There’s an everyman quality to the portrayal, which suggests no particular ethnicity or even locale. (These aspects of Willy are kept as vague as the goods he schleps in trunks all across his New England beat.) Yet the character’s world view resounds far beyond his little patch of yard. The fluidity of the play, twisting back to the past from the present, has to contend with logistical problems imposed by the configuration of the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this handsomely renovated space. It’s just that Miller’s play belongs in a proscenium house that can easily accommodate a two-story set. The solution devised by scenic designer Marion Williams (involving a stairwell that goes nowhere) is acceptable but not ideal. What is gained in intimacy is lost in spatial sanity.

“Death of Salesman” is an undeniable classic, but it’s not a perfect piece of dramatic writing. Miller’s language fails when it attempts literary flourishes (the poetry here is in the prosaic), and the work approaches Willy’s dilemma from so many vantages that there’s a cluttering effect. But then this latter issue is unavoidable in a drama that admirably wants its politics and its psychology too.

The unmoored supporting players in this revival--embodying neighbors, shadowy figures and symbolic presences--magnify the plot’s cumbersome nature. But DeMunn’s performance makes the public concerns deeply personal. If MacKinnon’s production doesn’t quite draw out the play’s full measure of pathos, it at least invests the conflicts with a ferocity that may be more in keeping with our own fed-up moment.

--Charles McNulty, in San Diego\charlesmcnulty


“Death of a Salesman,” Old Globe, Balboa Park, San Diego. 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends Feb. 27. $29-$67. (619) 234-5623 or Running time: 3 hours.