‘Death of a Salesman,’ Starring Wendell Pierce, Sharon D Clarke in Dynamic, Powerful Performances
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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/
‘Caroline or Change’ the Roundabout Theatre Company Revival, Starring Sharon D Clarke
“Sixteen feet below sea level, torn tween the Devil and the muddy brown sea,” Caroline (the terrific Sharon D Clarke) characterizes her existence to herself in the musical revival Caroline, or Change at Studio 54. At the outset Caroline is in the basement doing the laundry for the Gellmans accompanied by the rhythms of The Washing Machine (Arica Jackson) and The Radio singers #1, #2, #3 (Nasia Thomas, NYA, Harper Miles). They are anthropomorphic representations of Caroline, along with The Dryer (Kevin S. McAllister) who makes the atmosphere as “hot as hell.”
Tony Kushner’s book and lyrics and Jeanine Tesori’s music bring to life a portrait of a black maid’s inner hell. She has no prospects of betterment to uplift herself out of the symbolic, oppressive swamps of white supremacist Lake Charles, Louisiana, 1963. Embittered, miserable, impoverished, on a minimum wage to support herself and three kids, she has lost hope waiting for goodness to come. She resents everyone, most of all “Caroline” who has created the situation she finds herself in, abandoned by her husband, single, a drudge at thirty-nine-years old.
While other blacks in the South become involved with the Civil Rights Movement and march against the brutality of Jim Crow, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, or seek an education, the exhausted Caroline can barely suffer herself through the next day’s labors cleaning and watching over the Gellman’s son, eight-year-old Noah (Jaden Myles Waldman the evening I saw it) who mourns his recently deceased mother. Her employers, Stuart Gellman (John Cariani) and Rose, his second wife (Caissie Levy) who attempts to be nice to Caroline, only make the situation worse.
Victims themselves of institutional racism, caught up in the discriminatory animus of the South, they can’t afford to raise Caroline’s wages. Nor do they relate to her on a personal level to uplift her, not that she would accept their attempts.
Indeed, throughout the play Caroline’s soul is metaphorically buried alive and/or drowning underwater as she struggles to pay for rent and food for herself and her children, one of whom is in Viet Nam. It is clear no one is coming to dig her out or rescue her, least of all herself. Unless a catalyst stirs her to resurrection, she will continue until the anger breaks out in violence against others; or she turns to self-destruction (acutely represented in a scene with Rose at the show’s turning point).
Interestingly, this horror of racism and its witting/unwitting adherents to a system that destroys is only made watchable through Tesori’s music, and Kushner’s poetic lyrics. Caroline’s anger and self-hatred projected out onto everyone, including friend Dotty Moffett (Tamike Lawrence) could have been a one-note agony of oppression and bondage. Key themes would have been undermined and occluded without the symbolism and majesty of the music and the fabulous voices that weave out Caroline’s story, of her inability to hope in an era when hope was the watchword of the Black South.
Tesori’s vibrant mix of 1950s-60s R & B/pop/soul/jazz/klezmer with a Diana Ross and The Supreme’s number at the finale and Kushner’s lyrics throughout measure like a soaring opera. They elevate the character of Caroline into an epic hero with her attendants, The Moon (the lovely voiced N’Kenge) and her children, especially Emmie (Samantha Williams) who has the spunk and courage to envision more for herself. Without our learning about Caroline’s emotional devastation embodied by the sonorous, operatic voices, Caroline or Change would have lost its vitality, currency and great moment, all of which are timeless and relatable to America 2021.
The superb cast is up for the challenge, singing beautifully, powerfully. Initially, it took me a while to understand the lyrics; the performers’ articulation wasn’t as acute as needed. However, like getting used to Shakespearean language, the heightened bond between the cast and the audience conveyed the centrality of Caroline’s conflicts. These become “a matter of ethics,” pride and dignity for her as a black woman who must carve out her identity in a bludgeoning, challenging racist society. What Kushner fashions as an issue of nickels and dimes evolves into the crux of black economic experience in the U.S, then and now.
Caroline’s dilemma is whether or not to take the change left in Noah’s pants pockets that he forgets to remove before Caroline does the laundry. Rose tells her to take it as a lesson for Noah to learn to “mind his money.” Caroline desperately needs the small bit of change, but also needs her soul to be intact. The minuscule handout becomes a symbolic gesture of Noah’s grandiose charity (in his view he believes Caroline and family appreciate his “largesse”). From Caroline’s perspective it symbolizes belittling crumbs of corruption taken from a “child,” making her an indigent, a beggar who cannot “rise above.” When she submits to temptation out of want for her children, she drains her dignity and faith in herself to “make it on her own,”
Of course, there would be no problem if the emotionally challenged Gellmans just provided a living wage instead of using money as a perverse lure for Caroline to damn herself. Caroline’s conflict symbolically parallels the perniciousness of economic inequality in America. It recalls demeaning public assistance handouts. Instead, if corporations paid the proportionate taxation rates, and with employers provided a decent, living wage, poverty, misery and an unequal justice system could be eradicated. However, the the US with its notorious history of enslavement (both white, black and colored) needs to demean souls to feed its own psychic sickness and keep the washing machine laboring by the underclasses to cleanse itself from its deranged filth.
This is just one of the themes Kushner reveals in a production luxurious with ironies and messages. Another controversy to look for is the dynamic between the Gellman’s situation and Caroline’s. The Gellmans are Jews who, too, experience discrimination and abuse as outsiders from the white supremacists that dominate the surrounding culture not only in the South but indeed, everywhere. Yet, there is little real empathy or understanding between Caroline and the Gellmans.
This humorously comes to the fore during the Chanukah celebration. Rose’s father, Mr. Stopnick (Chip Zien masterfully steals the moment) a Jew from New York City rails against Southern racism and hypocrisy. He uplifts the blacks’ position to foment violent revolution, which he suggests should have happened with the US Communist Party in the 1930s. Of course he is shushed up.
Meanwhile, his attitude about money which he delivers in a Marxist speech to Noah as he gives him Chanukah gelt is ironic. The twenty dollars ends up in Caroline’s “change cup.” Noah and she argue and afterward, Caroline realizes the fullness of the compromised, hateful individual she’s allowed herself to become. Sharon D. Clarke’s aria ‘Lot’s Wife’ is a showstopper. In the song Caroline’s conflict spills out in an epiphany. She concludes with a prayer to God, “Set me free; don’t let my sorrow make evil of me.”
Michael Longhurst’s direction of the ensemble is excellently dotted with interesting choices. The revolving platform is used symbolically. For example, during the Chanukah Party, Caroline, Dotty and daughter Emmie go in circles to please the Gellmans. Kudos enlightened staging by Fly Davis (set and costume design). Yet Caroline, et. al control; their servitude defines their strength. Without them, the Gellmans would be “on their own,” incapable, unable, weak. We are reminded of the South’s “need” of slavery rather than building a strong foundation from their own or paid labor which would have stultified their laziness and greed and encouraged a more prosperous economy and no need for a Civil War to end slavery, that peculiar “Christian” institution.
Kudos to the creative team: Jack Knowles (lighting) Paul Arditti (sound) Amanda Miller (hair and wigs) Sarah Cimino (make-up) Joseph Joubert (music direction) Nigel Lilley (music supervision) Ann Lee (choreography) who express Kushner’s themes roundly and provide a glistening backdrop (the swampland surrounding the house is wonderful) for the cast to play upon.
Caroline or Change opened in 2003 at The Public Theatre to mixed reviews, though it garnered awards. Sharon D Clarke starred as Caroline and won an Olivier for it in the London production in 2017. In the Roundabout production she reaffirms her grandeur, infusing her portrayal with substance, hitting her emotional peaks and turns with a resonant, anointed voice. This is one to see for the cast’s performances. If you missed it in 2003, don’t miss it in 2021. It is a reminder of what was and what is and a hope of what might be if we leave off divisive hatreds and rebirth ourselves to a better way. For tickets and times go to their website https://www.roundabouttheatre.org/get-tickets/2021-2022-season/caroline-or-change/