Death of a Salesman

August 4, 2010

Arthur Miller’s classic diatribe against the capitalist system, anchored by a masterful performance from Harris Yulin, is given a competent, thorough if unengaging production at the Gate Theatre.

Directed by David Esbjornson, his occlusive approach emphasises the causes of Willie’s problems rather than the effect of his actions the ultimate result being a stimulation of thought over feeling.

The production values, as always with the Gate, are high, the brown bricks of a Brooklyn brownstone protruded by the branches of a withered old tree, with minimal props and a pleasant enough score by Dennis Clohessy, although perhaps a little too cinematic or melodramatic for the subject at hand.

Yulin is terrific as Lohman, drowning in delusion and sinking anyone who comes close enough to help. The plot juxtaposes between the past and the present, the real and the imagined and he deftly dances between the different states of consciousness. The tiny shifts in character that Yulin makes when portraying Willie the father, Willie the husband, Willie the brother and Willie the friend is what makes this such a fully realised performance.

What we know now and what they knew then has dissipated Lohman’s effectiveness as a tragic character. The stock of the American Dream has plunged significantly in the past sixty years and the true tragedy is not Willie’s desperate need to be well liked rather the trickle down effect it has on his family. But this production, like Rough Magic’s Earnest, is built around its Matinee idol, with few strong character decisions made by or for the supporting cast.

Garret Lombard is a solid Biff, seeing through the dissembled mess his father has constructed and desperately trying to untangle himself. Deirdre Donnelly a mummsy, insular Linda wages a futile war against her sons, trying on one hand to keep one from repeating the sins of his father while trying to keep the other from exiling him. It’s a vocally impressive and facially expressive performance but she gets trapped physically rarely moving below the neck. While Rory Nolan, though nailing the accent, is never allowed make Hap a character with any problems of his own, his desperate grab for attention played for comedic effect with no sign of the insecurity, of the constantly overlooked little boy who resides within him.

While I understand the desire to put together the strongest ensemble you can Barry McGovern’s brings nothing to his minute part other than his Barry McGoverness, distracting from rather than adding anything to the piece. Compare it with Elizabeth Moynihan’s Jenny who you fully believe existed off stage and wasn’t just thrown in there for added wattage.

There are also some directorial flaws. Stephen Brennan’s Uncle Ben’s reappearance amongst the audience towards the end of act two pulls focus and loses much of the intimacy Esbjornson’s production earns as compensation for the small playing space while the changes in time and reality are not clear enough. There is also too defeated a feeling in the air from the start, perhaps unavoidable as the play is so well-known, but even the moments of hope are saturated in a heavy-handed woe.

Despite this it’s still one of the most solid shows we’ve had this year, but given the talent involved you can’t help but feel a little disappointed.


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