In an unprecedented collaboration with Showtime and The Actors Fund, Goodman Theatre presents a free stream of the Tony Award-winning Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, starring Brian Dennehy, and directed by Goodman Artistic Director Robert Falls. This production, featuring the Broadway cast at Eugene O’Neill Theatre, was captured on film in 2000 and has not aired since its original release.
A tired salesman, 60-year old Willy Loman (Brian Dennehy), returns to his Brooklyn home and wife, Linda (Elizabeth Franz), following an arduous road trip in which yet again he has failed to meet his target. But Willy doesn’t want to face the reality of his situation and the outstanding bills when he can indulge in the illusion of success that he believes is ultimately governed by popularity and where money will bring happiness.
Whilst younger son Happy (Ted Koch) represents all that his father believes in, one-time sports star and now faded athlete elder son Biff (Ron Eldard), serves up a different message where happiness is about enjoying what you like and what you’ve got, whilst also serving as a timely reminder to his father that what he says and what he does are not one and the same having caught him in flagrante with a woman (Kate Buddeke) many years before.
Ridden by dreams of the past where he imagines a different life based on his core beliefs, Willy is in fact haunted by the memory of now deceased elder brother Ben (Allen Hamilton) who appeared to have lived the all-American dream by catching an opportunity, conquering nature, and gaining a fortune in the process. In contrast, neighbour Charley (Howard Witt) and son Bernard (Richard Thompson) serve to demonstrate that whilst self-belief may get you some of the way, it’s no real substitute for hard work, a point proven when boss Howard Wagner (Steve Pickering) lets him go.
Interspersed with warm moments of good humour, this is a hard-hitting and uncompromising piece of theatre, delightfully portraying issues that resonate as strongly today with the artificial bubble of social media that people create around themselves and where nobody really knows what the truth is anymore.
Dennehy gives a mercurial performance, shifting, often physically, between the quick-wit and positive nature of his salesman to the rage and bewilderment that the reality of both his present and past thrusts upon him. Franz delights as she shows her deep love for her husband at every turn whilst angry with her sons for their thoughtless treatment of their father, though baffled and sad by the end of it all. Both deservedly won Tony Awards for their performances.
There is great support from several others in the cast, particularly Eldard and Koch as Willy’s contrasting sons, and Witt who perfectly embodies the neighbour and erstwhile friend who is the only one who really gets how the world works and offers Willy a lifeline which he is unable to accept.
With so much movement between time and place, between reality and imagination, I particularly enjoyed Mark Wendland’s shifting modular scenic design which cleverly took us on a journey through Willy’s mind with Fall’s masterly direction ensuring that the play focuses and revolves around Willy and his family as they moved uncomprehendingly towards destruction, and for which he won a Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play.
Sadly, Howard Witt passed in 2017 and Brian Dennehy in April of this year and this production serves as a reminder of and tribute to their great craft.
Death of a Salesman is available to view at https://www.goodmantheatre.org/Salesman until 25th October 2020.
Reviewer: Mark Davoren
Reviewed: 22nd October 2020
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★