Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman Revival on Broadway Overflows with Respect and Relevance

The cast of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman on Broadway. Photo by Joan Marcus

The Broadway Theatre Review: Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman on Broadway

By Ross

Adding a layer of depth that we didn’t know was needed, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman delivers a punch worthy of its heralded arrival from its award-winning run in London’s West End. The set pieces hang above the stage, signaling the dropping in of dreams, wishes, and nightmares. The visuals floating give a new meaning now that the play has been reworked once again for Broadway. Transferring after its powerful rebirth at the Young Vic Theatre, the production shines a misty light on the memories and arguments that hover in the past, forcing themselves down and forward into the present. The production wisely uncovers all from a new vantage point, that of the Black Man’s experience inside that twisted American Dream that hangs above our collective heads around prosperity and success. The revival shifts this view, elevating and expanding Miller’s vision exponentially, thanks to the inventive craftpersonship of director Miranda Cromwell (Almeida Theatre’s and breathe…) who unpacks an idea that few knew was so essential to the play and our present.

There are very few American works of theatre that sit as high and are so revered as this epic and historic critically honored piece of art that first appeared on Broadway in 1949 in a production directed by Elia Kazan. It won six Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and has received no less than five revivals, three of which won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play. This might be the fourth. Some say it is “one of the greatest plays of the 20th century.” But I must admit I went in wondering if I really needed to see another. I mean, over three hours of a play I’ve sat through countless times. It felt like a repeated long haul. Yes. I know. Foolish of me to even have that thought. Foolish of you if you are also having that thought, and following it.

Wendell Pierce and Sharon D. Clarke in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Photo by Joan Marcus, 2022.

I had no idea that the latest revival which is currently housed at the beautiful Hudson Theatre in New York, would be so meaningful, sharp, and relevant. But as the flashes and shadows of past mistakes shift into focus, that play, about one traveling salesman who is slipping down a rabbit hole of regret and disappointment, finds a new and stellar lease on life, even as the character’s mental foundation sinks below his feet. On a stage, complicated but invigorated by set and co-costume designer Anna Fleischle’s suspended canopy of scenarios, with solid assistance coming from lighting designer Jen Schriever (Broadway’s A Strange Loop), sound designer Mikaal Sulaiman (Broadway’s Thoughts of a Colored Man), composer Femi Temowo, and music coordinator John Miller (Broadway’s Ain’t Too Proud), a guitar player, in the form of musician Kevin Ramessar (Broadway’s Paradise Square), signals the descent of Willy Loman’s grip on sanity and his hold on his American Dream.

As the music strums off into the misty past along with that magical floating doorframe, the play by Arthur Miller (The Crucible; The View from the Bridge), set in a slightly different New York than was first imagined, has found its powerfully complicated soul in the body of Wendell Pierce (Broadway’s Clybourne Park). He stands, weary and worn, and gazes out the window that has floated down to frame him and his loaded-down wife, Linda, beautifully portrayed by the exquisite and strong Sharon D Clarke (Broadway’s Caroline, or Change). The look is deafening and filled with meaning, especially for those who know what is around the corner.

Khris Davis, Wendell Pierce, Sharon D. Clarke, and McKinley Belcher III in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Photo by Joan Marcus, 2022.

With this central character played so strong and damaged as this larger-than-life Black man who worships the American Dream of prosperity through hard work and likeability, the play really does feel reborn with a new prophetic purpose. Pierce’s Willy has held this tight-fisted dream close to his heart with such insistence, as well as pushing it hard on all those around him, that his mind can’t handle all the falsified memories that keep floating in on a crackling laugh from the far reaches of his shattered soul. And in the hands of Pierce, the desperate demented fight is one that we can’t help but slow down and peer at through pained eyes, and with Clarke standing by his side from beginning to end, it’s a crash site worthy of our total respect and admiration.

As the haunting laughter and darkness begin to creep in, and we watch this man realize that he has worked and formulated his whole life around an ideal that has no place for him, his desperation unhinges his hold, shoving him down to his knees with a power that is utterly riveting. As played by Clarke, Linda becomes a force to be reckoned with as she watches him fall hard. She is no longer the submissive wife coddling her husband’s delusional rants, but a woman demanding respect for her man as he loses this hard-fought battle. “Attention must be paid,” she says in that influential moment of the play that we all know so well, but her insistence as she beautifully sings him to sleep midway and at the end adds a crushing weight to an already powerful exploration of a racist world working against a man like Pierce’s Willy Loman.

McKinley Belcher III and Khris Davis in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Photo by Joan Marcus, 2022.

Under the watchful delicate eye of director Cromwell, the destruction of this man’s hold on his foolish dream sits solid, emphasized even more strongly by the portrayal of Willy’s two sons, Biff and Happy. Their exaggerated stances of different distorted aspects of Willy’s dream are magnificently presented inside this dream-filled landscape that floats in from the back and from the heavens. Khris Davis (Broadway/Public’s Sweat) as Biff, and McKinley Belcher III (MCC’s The Light) as Happy, find original and captivating nuances within these usually standardized roles, bringing in tones of blackness that fit the warped roles to perfection. In their very capable hands, the play itself finds a stronger more twisted union within the family circle, signaling a tragic outlying inheritance that will impact them all for the rest of their lives.

As the statuesque version of Biff’s delusional future starts to crumble and shrink down into the floorboards, we also register a pain in Belcher’s Happy that has never felt more complete and understandable. We ache for his desire for acceptance and love, even as we watch him take the warped baton from his father’s shrinking hand, and begin his own journey toward tragedy and unhappiness (you got to just love that Miller named his Happy). The other background players; Blake DeLong (NYTW’s Othello) as Howard/Stanley, Lynn Hawley (Public’s The Gabriels) as The Woman/Jenny, Grace Porter (Public/SITP’s Richard III) as Letta/Jazz Singer, Stephen Stocking (ATC’s Describe the Night) as Bernard, Chelsea Lee Williams (Broadway’s The Girl from the North Country) as Miss Forsythe, and Delaney Williams (HBO’s The Wire) as Charley, fill in the musical and emotional tones of this doomed land with spectacularly detailed portrayals. This Death cup is filled to the brim with talented experts giving it their all.

Sharon D. Clarke, Wendell Pierce, and André De Shields in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Photo by Joan Marcus, 2022.

But it is in Ben Loman, fascinatingly portrayed by the heavenly André De Shields (Broadway’s Hadestown), that shifts the ground under their very feet and pushes it over the edge. De Shields delivers this stunning ghostly presence with such force through smoke and bent whisperings about diamonds and jungle that it almost seems to float up with and around him, blocking out the sun and Willy’s failing hold on his mind. Dressed in sparkling diamond-encrusted white, thanks to co-costume designers Fleicshle (Broadway/West End’s Hangmen) and Sarita Fellows (Public’s A Bright Room Called Day), Ben’s flamboyant dress sparkles in the wasteland of Willy’s delusion, nailing down the lid on any chance that Willy might survive this fall.

It really is a wonder that Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman has never felt so alive and desperate, thanks to director Cromwell, unpacking layers upon layers of social commentary on the Black Person’s lived experience in America. As Pierce’s Willy bends over to pick up a pen dropped by his boss; a young man (DeLong) who looks down on Willy, and his kind, with such oblivious distaste, you can’t help but cringe. You can feel the itch on your skin just how much this young arrogant corporate man detests the situation he finds himself in. Not because of any respect for Willy Loman or his own father for hiring Willy so many years ago, but simply because the moment is messing with his comfortable view of the world. You really get the sense that he just wants Willy to vanish; disappear from his life, so he can get on with enjoying his privileged life and his fun new gadget. It is in that moment that this play solidifies itself as the powerful epic that it is (and maybe always has been), and its strong commentary on the world we live in. This is a production not to be missed, even if I almost stupidly thought about doing just that.

Blake DeLong and Wendell Pierce in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman playing at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre. Photo by Joan Marcus, 2022.

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