Death of a Salesman at the Alley: Powerful, Epic Theater

The setup:

After the Alley Theatre's recent backstage drama surrounding the sudden illness of actor James Black, who was forced to withdraw as Willy Loman -- a major career disappointment for him and his loyal Alley following -- you might think that Arthur Miller's monumental drama of Everyman would be shorn of any more conflict and action. But Miller's vaunted and much-lauded play remains full of fresh surprises, and the Alley's reverential production becomes a true theater treasure.

Also pleasing to report is that Glenn Fleshler, Black's replacement, who was understudy for Philip Seymour Hoffman in the recent Broadway revival that closed in June, portrays a finely shaded Willy that gnaws at the heart. His interpretation reveals all the iconic character's bluster, disappointment, growing madness and unalloyed heartbreak as he fails to live up to his own expectations. Fleshler embodies Willy with enough false heartiness and glad-handing that, when his dreams shatter, you actually watch his face slump. As life and his personal Furies buffet Willy into submission, Fleshler deflates. He becomes physically smaller as the play proceeds. It's a wondrously detailed portrait.

See also:

James Black's Sudden Illness Delays Death of a Salesman, Casting Change Announced

The execution:

Director Gregory Boyd gives this American classic a classic look, referencing Jo Mielziner's original 1949 production design with a skeletal, minimal setting. For the Alley, designer Hugh Landwehr locates Willy's breakdown on a glossy black platform, cracked and fractured, crushed against towering black walls of the encroaching neighborhood. The world is closing in on Willy, even the sky is gray and leaden, streaked with its own fractures. The ubiquitous Loman kitchen is sketched in by a shabby wooden table and chairs, cheap refrigerator, and that ominous water heater (with its gas line) that lies in the shadows. Except for the family bedrooms on the upper levels, that's all of the Loman household that's needed to depict Willy's self-destruction. The play, fluid and constantly changing, is set mostly in his head, so too much decor would just get in the way.

Among his other gifts, Miller is a glorious craftsman, and by making Salesman a memory play, he plays with shifting time as Willy relives the past while also living in the present. His life becomes a continual time bend. Miller's playing with time gives the drama a most prescient present tense. For all the late '40s trimmings in costume and big band musical segues, Salesman, in structure, has a most contemporary feeling.

The American Dream, according to Miller, is inextricably bound up with family; Willy's tragedy sears them all. There's no Salesman without the Loman family dysfunction, and the play has been meticulously cast. As enabling wife Linda, who loves Willy for all his faults but can't stop his trail of self-delusion, Josie de Guzman brings stalwart reserve and wistful dignity. When she explodes at her wayward children over their lack of respect for their father, it's as if all her frustration at Willy, too, comes to the fore. She stands by her man, no matter what.

As golden son Biff, Zachary Spicer, in his Alley debut, personifies the former high school football hero gone to seed. Biff can't get past his own failures, and when he finally owns up to them, the enlightenment scalds. It's one of the great scenes in American drama. Unfortunately, the more upset Spicer gets, the more garbled his speech becomes. The climactic scene is clumsily staged -- a bit too much furniture is pushed around -- and during the scuffle, his famous moment of truth, "Pop, I'm a dime a dozen," is needlessly thrown away. As the youngest, least appreciated son always in Biff's shadow, Jay Sullivan does wonders with Happy. Ever a step behind, he has become just like his father, doing the least with his life and compromising the most. Sullivan shows us the impact. Neighbor Charlie, Willy's only friend and lifeline, is marvelously limned by Jeffrey Bean, who gives this Borscht Belt Greek chorus a very modest, wise, human face.

The verdict:

Miller turns this tale of a small man made smaller into the stuff of big tragedy. Salesman is unceasingly gloomy and is famous for being so, but the deep empathy it engenders for poor pathetic Willy and the family he forever cripples makes for powerful, epic theater. One doesn't rush to see a performance of Salesman -- it's like theatrical spinach, supposed to be good for you -- but the Alley production is, most definitely, full of sustenance, food for thought and stylishly presented. Miller's masterpiece is in loving hands. Rush to see this one.

Arthur Miller's magnum opus of sad times and sadder people runs through October 28 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. Purchase tickets online at the company Web site or call 713-220-5700. $26-$78.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover