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A Death to Remember

Sadness, the kind that is dark, utterly alone and so constant and deep that it moves into the marrow of your bones, is one of the richest yet most difficult to articulate of human emotions. In its very nature it is lonely and private. Taking that private emotion and giving it a public face isn't easy, but that's exactly what Arthur Miller managed in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Death of a Salesman. The play, which opens the Alley's 199798 season, is one of the most profoundly moving articulations of regret and shame in the history of American theater. And the Alley's production, with Ralph Waite's heartbreaking Willy Loman at center stage, is a fully realized and deeply felt rendition of this American classic.

Willy Loman, the play's central character, has been called a modern American tragic figure. He's a workaday stiff, a man caught up in the capitalist dream that says money equals success, and this idea blinds him. For Willy -- like Oedipus and Hamlet before him -- doesn't know himself at all. He's good with his hands, but disdains the idea of becoming a carpenter. And while he makes a lousy traveling salesman, he has so glorified the notion of selling and striking it rich that he can't give up the idea, even as it's killing him. Thus Willy becomes the quintessential failure. In the end, he is broke and utterly lost.

The play is about Willy's struggle to maintain his beliefs even as the evidence mounts that he has lied to himself all his life. This inner struggle is poetically captured in Waite's performance, which is the driving force in a production full of powerful performances. Death of a Salesman moves back and forth between reminiscences of Willy's past, in which he replays regret-filled moments in his life, and the present, in which he must face his grown-up sons. When Waite moves downstage, where most of the moments of the past take place, he ignites the auditorium. Willy's madness, his despair and his rage against the truth about himself are delivered by Waite with a magnetic synthesis of pity and dignity. Willy's back is bent with age as he shuffles about the stage carrying with him long years of deep disappointment. But his fists are clenched as he struggles to set things right, because, as he repeats over and over, "the woods are burning" and there is little time left. At other times his face lifts up to the light with an almost childlike sweetness and anticipation. He is both ancient and adolescent, energetic and bone-tired, and constantly on the precipice of self-discovery. The instance in which Willy finally turns from that discovery and opts instead to hold fast to his delusions is one of those heart-chilling moments that makes live theater so desperately moving.

Willy's two sons, Biff and Happy (Daniel Zelman and Sean Runnette), represent a sort of bifurcated Willy. Biff, who is good with his hands and loves the outdoors, leaves home and abandons Willy's ideas about success, while Hap fully embraces his father's dreams of becoming the ultimate salesman. Both sons carry pieces of Willy's broken self inside them. They personify Willy's internal struggle between truth and self-deception. Hap, who lies with greater ease and deliberation than even Willy himself, is bereft of any guiding morals other than those of the marketplace. Runnette's Hap is an oily, limp-wristed snake of a man who cares for no one, not even his father, whom he abandons in a bar when he meets a pretty girl. He is a disappointment to Willy, though it was Willy himself who taught Hap to lie. But it's the return of Biff that sends Willy into his deepest despair.

Biff is the fallen golden boy, the high school football captain whose best days are over at the end of his senior year. He bears the overwhelming burden of all of Willy's unrealized hopes. And he, like Willy, journeys across America, running from home and his identity even as he struggles to re-create himself. Both Willy's and Biff's journeys inevitably lead them back home. And here they find themselves under the same roof, standing face to face, each confronting in the other what they have been trying so hard to escape: their true selves. Zelman's Biff comes home a boy-man who struggles to become his own person in the face of Willy's desire to make him into something he's not. When the play reaches its climax, and Biff confronts his father with all the lies upon which the identity of the Loman family has been built, Zelman captures an impossibly paradoxical moment of discovery. At this moment, Biff must both embrace the man that his father is -- for Biff is a good deal like Willy -- but also finally abandon his father. For Willy, in the end, refuses to see the truth of Biff's discovery -- that they are ordinary men who will never be rich or "well-liked" or "successful" in capitalistic terms.

Because Willy moves back and forth between reality and a sort of delusional dream state, the setting and lights play a pivotal role in establishing which state of mind Willy is inhabiting. Hugh Landwehr's set, in which Willy's house sits wonky and tilted, symbolizes Willy's disintegrating self. As Willy moves into his delusional state, reliving the past, Dennis Parichy's lights show the large and comforting trees that inhabited the neighborhood in days gone by. When Willy returns to the present, dozens of windows are revealed, moving up and out in every direction -- windows that adorn the apartment houses built since Willy arrived. Again, it is clear that the quest for wealth is in part responsible for Willy's destruction, just as it has literally destroyed the trees that represent what is real or "natural" inside of Willy.

David Wheeler's direction is so powerful that it is basically invisible. Each and every performance is searingly real. Lisa Richards as Willy's pitiful wife; Joseph Hindy as the boys' Uncle Charley; Kevin Waldron as nerdy and successful Bernard; Alexandra Loria as Willy's giggling lover; Michael Balcanoff as the mythical Uncle Ben; and Alex Allen Morris as Stanley, the good-guy waiter, all lend strong support to Waite, Runnette and Zelman. It's only when Biff and Hap talk upstairs in their childhood bedroom that things get awkward. The actors seems so constantly in danger of falling off the set, down 15 or so feet to the stage below, that their rough-and-tumble brother-bonding behavior is scary to watch.

The subtitle for Death of a Salesman is Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts.... Thankfully, art can sometimes give us words for what's private within ourselves; say for us what we have so much trouble uttering on our own. And this production of Miller's play is the sort that can send you wide-eyed toward your car, knowing, if only for a moment, that you are not alone in the world.

Death of a Salesman plays through November 1 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 228-8421.


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