You may have seen Arthur Miller’s midcentury masterpiece, Death of a Salesman, many times. You may have seen some of the great versions. But even if you saw the 1998 Goodman Theatre production starring Brian Dennehy, you will want to see it again now. That production was taken to Broadway in 1999, where it ran for more than nine months. One of the last few shows was filmed and is being streamed now in a very short run. I strongly recommend you set aside three of your remaining hours today or tomorrow, to see this shattering tragedy. Don’t plan to do anything afterwards except sit and think about this experience. Because live or recorded, this story rips apart three men, shreds them to the bone, and doesn’t put them together again.
Death of a Salesman was directed for the stage by Robert Falls and the filmed production is directed by Kirk Browning. It’s presented by Goodman Theatre in collaboration with Showtime and the Actors Fund, through midnight Central time Sunday, October 25.
Dennehy is Willy Loman, the aging road warrior, who scraped out a decent living as the “New England man,” a traveling salesman for a New York company. Miller never tells us what Willy sells, making him even more an Everyman. Willy lives in a world of delusion marked by occasional reality, as when he tells his wife Linda (a troublingly exquisite Elizabeth Franz) that he wishes just once that he would pay off an appliance before it breaks down. Willy used to be paid a salary (probably a draw) plus commission, but now he’s paid straight commission. Linda keeps careful track of their expenses on a tiny note pad and tells Willy how much they need to get through the week or month.
Willy’s refusal to face reality affects his relationships with his two sons. Biff, the elder, was a high school football player who never got past that small burst of fame and Willy still believes Biff is going to make it big, in some way. Biff, now in his 30s, is a lost boy who has never found his place in the world because he can’t achieve his father’s dreams for him. Hap, on the other hand, has a job, a car and an apartment, but Willy pays no attention to his second son. The role of Hap is a strong performance by Ted Koch. Biff was played by Kevin Anderson on most of the Broadway run but the role is played with heartache and intensity by Ron Eldard in this filmed version. Charley, Willy’s neighbor and friend, is played by the late Howard Witt. Dennehy, a regular actor on the Goodman stage, died in April.
Salesman is blessed with dozens of memorable lines, almost in Shakespearean fashion. (And there is something Shakespearean about this story of a striving but tragically flawed human being.) Here are a few
Willy, speaking of his neighbor: “Charley is liked but he’s not well-liked.”
Linda, speaking of Willy to his sons: “I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper…. But he’s a human being and something terrible is happening to him. So attention must be paid…. Attention, attention finally must be paid to such a person.”
Willy, speaking about why he got into sales: “His name was Dave Singleman. He was 84 years old and he’d drummed merchandise in 31 states. And old Dave, he’d go up to his room, put on his green velvet slippers….He’d pick up his phone and he called the buyers and without ever leaving his room, that’s how he made his living. … and, when he died, he died the death of a salesman, in his green velvet slippers, in the smoker of the New York, New Haven and Hartford, going into Boston….”
Willy, speaking to Charley about his insurance: “Funny, y‘know? After all the highways and the trains and all the appointments and the years, you’re worth more dead than alive.”
Charley to Biff, at play’s end: “He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine…. A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.”
The outstanding stage production benefits by sensitive camera work and editing (the work of film director Kirk Browning), offering closeups of actors that you would not see viewing a live stage production. Scenic design is by Mark Wendland and the outstanding lighting design by Michael Philippi.
The free stream of Death of a Salesman is available for viewing here through 12midnight Central Time on Sunday, October 25. The Actors Fund will greatly appreciate your donation for its COVID relief fund for actors and other arts and entertainment professionals.