Graney’s ‘Salesman’ is a door worth opening

By Chris Jones

Doors are the motif of choice in Sean Graney’s moving, provocative and startlingly successful revival of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” As Graney imagines it, these hunks of varnished wood — which clutter a stage at the Athenaeum Theatre — are apt markers for the tragic life of Willy Loman. And Graney makes a formidable theatrical case.

Peeling doors constrict Willy’s cramped Brooklyn home. He constantly has to knock on corporate doors to sell himself, only to be met by a lifetime of empty rooms. Willy’s nightmares kick and scuff their way out of his mind’s doors — shadows of familial regret and a reminder of how briefly boys can afford to be boys. And, driven to desperation, Willy fatefully destroys his son by having a squalid affair behind the one door on the stage bearing a room number.

By the end of the night, one of the doors has become the top of Loman’s coffin. Literally. And if you’re not moved by Bill McGough’s dead salesman twisting one last door handle to lay himself down to an uneasy rest in a hellish location, then you’re composed like a brick wall without an opening.

Since its the greatest American play of the 20th Century, “Death of a Salesman” rarely gets such conceptual takes. Directors fear the charge of hubris. Understandably.

But it’s a measure of the palpable quality of Graney’s production for The Hypocrites that one never feels that an auteur director is somehow messing with the author’s agenda — or even his original style. For those of us who have seen or read this play scores of times, this is such a distinctive, gripping and daring (and also unusually intimate) production that it lends the familiar material a striking freshness.

It’s not directorial cleverness but Miller’s social observation and emotional poignancy that one takes away. Long before “Six Feet Under” made it fashionable to talk to dead relatives, Miller weaved Loman’s conversations with his brother, Ben, into the fabric of an otherwise realistic work. In most productions, the Ben scenes are forced and stylized — the weaker moments of a great play. But with the help of a counter-intuitive performance from Kevin Keneally, Graney somehow makes those chats pop out, HBO-style. It works splendidly.

And that’s not the only notable achievement. The role of Biff has become, over the years, a repository for ebullient acting from manly, emotionally confident stars looking to chew up an old man. But Robert McLean’s Biff is a kid. A scared, dysfunctional, crying kid with neither confidence nor a parental anchor. Which was Miller’s whole point.

Elsewhere in this fine show, emotions run notably hot and deep, whether it’s Christopher Meister’s kind Bernard kissing his Uncle Willy or Kurt Ehrmann focusing in on Charley’s anger and irritation as much as his generosity. And Graney makes clear that Happy’s women are whores, not ambiguous goodtime girls in Midtown. Ryan Bollettino’s Hap is a portrait of the pathetic.

McGough’s Willy is not some towering performance in Broadway mode. One gets vocal hints of Chicago rather than requisite New York. And, as Lomans go, McGough does not number among the flashily broken. But it’s a thoroughly truthful and right-headed performance — ably matched by Donna McGough, McGough’s real-life wife, playing an understated Linda — that paints a hopelessly limited character who barely knew himself.

Graney designed the look of this show himself, along with Jim Moore. The visuals — not just the doors but the way the circuitous playing area suggests a rat trapped in a cage — are a remarkable achivement. Graney’s work is not only daring and distinctive but sophisticated and mature. It’s time some bigger doors around town opened for this fine young director.

cjones@tribune.com