Review by Julia Polinsky
Miller’s Death of a Salesman premiered on Broadway in 1949, and
enjoyed successful revivals in 1975, 1984, 1999, and 2012. It’s arguably the
most famous American play of the 20th Century.
if winning the Pulitzer Prize weren’t enough, every Broadway production has won
Tony awards, usually multiples. Death of a Salesman is a dream come true
for strong male leads. Full of juicy secondary roles. Speaks to post-War
nihilism and despair, family, the internal collapse of the American Dream. It
has been taught everywhere. There are film adaptations in several languages
(Russian! Farsi! Swedish!), TV versions, radio drama.
Death of a Salesman’s been done to death, maybe?
Everyone knows the play’s basic premise: washed-up, delusional, hallucinating
Willy Loman (Wendell Pierce), at the tail end of a mediocre career as a
traveling salesman, loses everything, destroys his family, and kills himself.
No surprises, nothing new to learn here – except that this production does
indeed provide the shock of the new: all the major roles are played by Black
Wendell Pierce and Sharon D. Clarke in Death of a Salesman. Photo
by Joan Marcus
has been made of how this production reframes the play with a Black cast, and
whether that casting works. It works. Superbly. This Death of
a Salesman seamlessly
translates the woes and miseries of a White, mid-century American family, full
of failure, hope, hypocrisy, lies, and love, to a Black mid-century American
family full of the same.
layers of the racial tension and bigotry prevailing in the mid-1940s feel
electrically current. The language used by the ghost of Willy’s successful
brother, Ben (an ethereal Andre de Shields), makes for squirming in your seat;
how often have the words “boy” and “jungle” been used to hurt Black people?
Willy’s humiliation as he loses his job carries the extra pain of a Black man
forced to beg from a White boss. Biff and Happy will never make it in
White-controlled jobs or businesses, and they know it.
Khris Davis, Wendell Pierce, Sharon D. Clarke, McKinley Belcher
III in Death of a Salesman. Photo by Joan Marcus
directed by Miranda Cromwell, the current Broadway production of Death of
is so good, it’s like seeing a new play. In a superb production designed by
Anna Fleischle, supported by beautifully integrated sound design from Mikaal
Sulaiman, Femi Temowo’s evocative music, and gorgeous lighting from Jen
Schreiver, the technical theater wizardry brilliantly serves a knockout cast.
Pierce’s excellent performance seesaws between Willy’s weakness and
forcefulness, his delusional rage, his love, his despair. Khris Davis
handsomely fleshes out Biff’s jejune dreaming and his grief and anger. As
Happy, McKinley Belcher III paints a wince-worthy picture of the often-dismissed
younger brother. Andre de Shields welds malice and wisdom into every word
uttered by the ghost of Ben, Willy’s brother who made such a huge fortune in
diamond mines that even his buttons and shoes are encrusted with bling (costume
design from Sarita Fellows and Anna Fleischle).
Sharon D. Clarke, Wendell Pierce, Andre de Shields in Death
of a Salesman. Photo by Joan Marcus
good as the rest of the cast is, it’s Linda’s show. Sharon D. Clarke gives a
performance so stunning, so nuanced, so powerful, that it’s impossible to look
away. Attention must, indeed, be paid. None of the obvious characters, not the
pathetic man-child Biff, not the unhappy Happy, not even the desperate,
disintegrating Willy, expresses so much pain. Linda, a woman more sinned
against than sinning, who pays for everyone else’s faults as she pays off the
mortgage, experiences the real tragedy in this Death of
Her graveside speech is wrenching, masterful, perfect.
Sharon D. Clarke in Death of a Salesman. Photo by Joan Marcus
Great American Classic made fresh and new: Death of a Salesman lives. Not to be
Death of a Salesman
At the Hudson Theatre
141 W 44th St.
New York, NY 10036
Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays at 7pm
Wednesdays at 1pm; Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm Sundays at 3pm
Running time 3:10 with one intermission
Through January 15, 2023