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‘Death of a Salesman,’ Starring Wendell Pierce, Sharon D Clarke in Dynamic, Powerful Performances

Wendell Pierce in Death of a Salesman (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Director Miranda Cromwell has given Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman another go round in a revival elucidating the most salient features of Miller’s modern tragedy. Cromwell’s version, currently at the Hudson Theatre, reminds us that as a classic of the 20th century, the play’s themes are timeless, and Loman’s fall is representative of what the powerless man experiences every day of his life.

Wendell Pierce, Sharon D Clarke in Death of a Salesman (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Starring the dynamic, stirring Wendell Pierce as Everyman Willy Loman and Sharon D Clarke as wife Linda, the cast and creatives provide a dramatic and thought provoking view of Miller’s American family. With tremendous currency Cromwell’s version explores the heartfelt tragedy of the diminishing patriarch whose foibles are easily identifiable and relatable to our lives.

(L to R): McKinley Belcher III, Khris Davis in Death of a Salesman (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

From beginning to the conclusion Cromwell shepherds her remarkable cast in a unique reexamination of Willy and Linda Loman, a husband and wife team who cling to falsehoods and illusions for the sake of each other to get to the next day. Fatefully, Willy’s end is irrevocable and Miller’s play expertly imagined by the director reveals the steps which ensure that Willy’s train wreck life moves with increasing devastation to come to the “end of the line,” Willy’s complete breakdown and suicide. Miller’s characterizations are heightened in this revival brought to life from moment-to-moment by the ensemble all of whom are spot-on sensational.

(L to R): Sharon D Clarke, Wendell Pierce, André De Shields in Death of a Salesman (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Particularly wonderful, Pierce’s Loman spools out Willy’s loss of power, self-esteem and confidence as he clings to his fantasies and is beaten by memories of his past failures. These become more stark and tormenting until until his ghostly guide, the wonderful, stately André De Shields as Ben, encourages him toward the “proposition” (a life insurance payout) he can’t refuse.

André De Shields in Death of a Salesman (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Cromwell’s, staging, Jen Schriever’s lighting design and Mikaal Sulaiman’s sound design relay Willy’s searing flashback visions. Pierce’s Willy makes these physical as if they slash his mind so that he is forced to respond with fury, as he attempts to stop the fears and guilt that drive him toward insanity. Clarke’s Linda kindly couches Willy’s lies and bombast with her own obfuscations and illusions. She is frustrating and infuriating for pandering to Willy’s babble. That Pierce’s Willy ignores and berates her and Clarke’s Linda puts up with him out of love is typical of such relationships of endurance and suffering. However, it becomes obvious that Linda fronts Willy and hides her underlying hopelessness and fear which she confesses to their sons Biff (Khris Davis) and Hap (McKinley Belcher III). Thus, Linda is two people. The loving wife to her husband who puts up with his abuse. And the truthful mother who upbraids her children and seeks their help with her ill husband.

(L to R): Blake DeLong, Wendell Pierce in Death of a Salesman (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Indeed, Linda knows Willy is desperate and on the brink of suicide. However, she spins her own conundrum. Fatalistically she watches Willie, expecting him to finish himself off in the basement. Yet, at the conclusion she dupes herself into believing Biff exacerbates and is the cause of Willie’s torments. Believing that Biff and Hap’s absence will relieve Willy and he will be “OK,” her delusion contributes to Willy’s suicide as she “lets him go.” Even at the end, she can barely confront what she knew was coming all along. She questions it. Clarke’s Linda can’t process his suicide and is still oblivious to the lies he’s told her to glorify his life. This is so even after Biff in his revelation scene exposes the family as predicate liars. Clarke’s Linda is numbed to realizing the truth of who Willie is. Throughout Clarke’s vital acting reveals a woman at sea going only so far in her realizations, then pulling back just short of making a difference for her entire family. Pierce and Clarke authentically create the type of marriage that reveals how blind love is, especially when it is slathered with lies and illusions.

Sharon D Clarke in Death of a Salesman (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

The morass Willy and Linda have built for each other and their children has so entangled the family, they cannot bear to be around each other for the continuous gaslighting and exaggerations. Willy responds to thirty-four-year-old Biff in extremes ranging from insult to encouragement and mostly argument if Biff doesn’t agree and bow to his “judgment.”

Death of a Salesman (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Pierce’s Willy pitted against Davis’ vibrant and soulful Biff works with authentic poignance. Revealing their relationship built on lies, Cromwell with acute minimalism sets up the climactic flashback when Biff, encouraged by Willy to ignore his studies, fails math and runs to Willy in Boston for help. Finding Willy with another woman devastates Biff. It demeans Linda and shows Willy’s life with family is a sham since he can’t uphold his marriage vows. In a dynamic scene between the two actors Pierce’s Willy uses pretense to con his son and overwhelm Davis’ Biff from understanding the facts. But Biff realizes who his father is and can’t forgive him, feeling terrible for Linda. Crying, Biff leaves, forever sealing Willy’s guilt that he has destroyed Biff’s life and proven himself a fraud.

(L to R): McKinley Belcher III, Wendell Pierce, Khris Davis in Death of a Salesman (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

For his part Belcher III’s Hap is a convincing “chip off the old block,” on steroids. He follows in Willy’s footsteps and abides in his own delusions that he’ll make a success of himself, though he can’t admit he is at a low rung in the hierarchy of his company. Belcher III and Davis work hand in glove as the two brothers, one selling himself 24/7, the other seeking his identity and finally discovering it. Biff, the hero of Miller’s play because he faces the truth and confronts the family with their lies, courageously admits he has hit rock bottom. Too resounding for Willy to accept, it is one more torment slashing Willy’s mind. Davis, especially as the truthful Biff in the last scenes is superb.

(L to R): (foreground) Khris Davis, Wendell Davis, Sharon D Clarke, McKinley Belcher III in Death of a Salesman (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

During the flashbacks, Hap, Biff, Linda and Willy enliven the family interactions and dynamics along with neighbor Charley (Delaney Williams in a terrific portrayal), and son Bernard (Stephen Stocking masters the young and the older Bernard with solid acting chops). Charley and Bernard are admirable and kind; their decency in the face of Willy’s insults is smashing. Williams and Stocking are another team to round out this fine ensemble, all of whose work is authentic and beautifully synergistic.

(L to R): Sharon D Clarke, Wendell Pierce, Khris Davis in Death of a Salesman (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

For example Pierce and Davis’s performances along with Lynn Hawley as The Woman perfectly render Biff and Willy’s destruction of their relationship with the awkwardness of a naked expose, as Biff and The Woman catch up Willy blabbering in his lies. Also, as we do during the flashbacks of the family, including the high school days with the excellent Williams and Stocking, we follow, engrossed with the Loman family as we “get” how the fabric of their lives unravels, and we realize why Willy’s suicide comes when it does.

Willy’s breakdown is Pierce’s gradual tour de force with each flashback, each event showing how Willy is brought closer to the brink until he can take no more. Miller reveals that much could have happened to stop him. However, the obfuscations and self-delusions are so great, only Biff could help. But it is too late. Biff can only save himself. Not even the hero can save Willy from his ghostly dreams to die “the death of a salesman” with a fulfilled proposition of $20,000 for his family, a fallen hero after all.

The scenic design by Anna Fleischle is minimalistic and suggestive with wooden frames introducing Willy and Linda. Unadorned furniture suggests Hap and Biff’s bedroom, Howard’s office, the hotel room, etc., revealing the play unfolds mostly in flashback at crucial points in Willy’s past in his memories. The flashback scenes are without framing and the staging is free formed, revealing Willy’s flights of fancy that make him happy. The guilt and fear torments are staged accordingly as Willy attempts to escape himself but can’t. The change in time Cromwell has reflected in the costume changes (co-costume designers Anna Fleischle, Sarita Fellows) of Linda, Biff, Hap, Charlie and Bernard. Only Willy wears the same outfit, always his suit whether jacket on or off, a salesman to the last.

Cromwell uses funeral music in the beginning and at the ending to frame the play about Willy’s life. This structural unity adds grace and embodies the concept of Willy’s death and the life he lives elucidated to reveal why he commits suicide. However, Charlie exonerates Willy and suggests, “nobody dast blame this man. A salesman has got to dream. It comes with the territory.”

This revival is illuminating and fresh, a must-see, especially for its performances and enlightened direction. For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.thehudsonbroadway.com/whatson/death-of-a-salesman/

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