By Hedy Weiss
Keep your eye on the doors. Doors that once were welcoming but now are slammed shut. Doors that hide indiscretions. Doors that seem to lead to opportunity. And doors that slam shut as you step into the next world. Doors are the defining symbol of director Sean Graney’s tremendously engrossing and at moments even revelatory production of “Death of a Salesman.”
Arriving onstage just seven months after the death of Arthur Miller, Graney and his always surprising company, the Hypocrites, prove that there is still much to be learned from a classic, and that the more you examine this defining work, the more remarkable and soul-scouring it appears to be.
Like Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” “Salesman” (which debuted on Broadway five years later, in 1949) is a memory play — a searing, Lear-like look at “a man who didn’t know who he was” and “had all the wrong dreams.” But while Williams looked back at the lingering despair of the Depression, Miller looked at his own moment, the years right after World War II, and the fate of one flawed but very human man and his family. This was a time when America was booming, when “getting ahead” was the clarion cry and when a certain ruthlessness was replacing what once might have been termed “the gentleman’s way” of doing business. Doors flew open for some but were rudely closed on others, and Willy Loman was ill-equipped for the change.
The power of Graney’s fast-moving, crystal-clear production (and if anyone doubts Graney is one of the most insightful directors now at work in Chicago, this production should set them straight), lies in both its speed and its microscopic reading of the text. Even those who’ve seen “Salesman” countless times before may wonder why they never quite picked up on the green velvet bedroom slippers worn by the legendary older salesman so admired by Willy Loman. And while they may have noticed that Willy’s favorite son, Biff, had a propensity for stealing — more out of anger and frustration than need — they might not have fully felt the damaging sense of shame these little thefts caused. Small things, perhaps, but crucial, and they make all the difference, as does the sense of how Willy’s weaknesses have been transmitted to his sons in intriguingly different ways.
Willy and Linda Loman are played by Bill McGough and Donna McGough, first-rate actors who happen to be husband and wife in real life. He is physically smaller and less blustery than Brian Dennehy, the most notable actor to play Willy in recent years; he also is more adept at seeming average and lost.
“I don’t have a thing in the ground,” Willy says, late in the play, worrying about the state of his garden. But as a man in his early 60s — one payment away from owning his house, just dismissed from the job where he’d worked for more than three decades and estranged from the sons whose approval he craves more than anything — it sums up his complete sense of rootlessness and his realization that he never had a firm foundation. As Linda, Donna McGough, a petite beauty, is all solicitousness, forever trying to ease the rift between father and sons.
And about those sons. There is Biff (a stoical yet impassioned Robert McLean), who, even in his golden days as a high school football champion — and before a life-altering moment of disillusionment with his father that sets him adrift for life — was a deeply flawed person. And there is Happy (expert work by Ryan Bollettino), forever ignored by his father, forever seeking his attention and ultimately a crass womanizer and ne’er-do-well who is like a grotesquely magnified version of Willy.
Hovering around the play are the success stories: Willy’s neighbor Charley (a carefully understated Kurt Ehrmann), and his son Bernard (Christopher Meister, especially masterful in his adult guise), the nerd-turned-powerhouse attorney, and Uncle Ben (Kevin Kenneally, with a deftly mythic presence), Willy’s adventurous brother who made his fortune in Africa while still a young man.
The ensemble acting, especially impressive in its conjuring of family intimacy, also features solid supporting performances by Lisa Comer, Jason Powers, Erin Myers, Tammy Stackpoole and Chuck Patella. In fact, one of the great strengths of Graney’s production is the way he reveals how almost every character is filled with a quiet desperation and a readiness to compromise morally for some version of success.
The work of the designers — Charles Cooper (whose ever-shifting lighting suggests the worlds of both memory and reality), Alison Siple (whose fine period costumes add color) and Michael Griggs (whose musical underscoring is subtle and haunting) — add greatly to the effect. And the set — a kind of precarious, dizzying carousel of doors created by Graney and Jim Moore — makes possible an image of suicide (a literal shutting of the door on oneself) that will not be quickly forgotten.
Both as a director and as a playwright, Graney continually obsesses about the human craving for connection and the twisted mechanism that makes it so difficult for people to make that connection. In “Death of a Salesman” he has found ideal material with which to probe this notion further.