Broadway Revival of "Death of a Salesman" Wins Over Critics and Audiences

Summer arts dispatch from NYC

Director Mike Nichols’ current Broadway revival of "Death of a Salesman" won the category for “Best Revival of a Play” at the Tony Awards held in June this year. This was simply the latest of many awards garnered by the popular play: It was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play in 1949, and previous Broadway revivals in 1984 and 1999 won numerous Tony Awards.

From its original publication in 1949, the play has continuously resonated with audiences. Nichols’ current revival is considered particularly pertinent to today’s problems––with the New York Times commenting on the way the play speaks to  our current economic recession

The iconic tragedy by Arthur Miller centers on the life of failing salesman Willy Loman (Phillip S. Hoffman), his wife Linda (Linda Emond), and his two sons Biff (Andrew Garfield) and Hap (Finn Witrock), exploring the negative ramifications of the American dream.

I saw "Death of a Salesman"  on the second-last day of its Broadway run. I had read the play before, and even acted out scenes from the play in high school––but none of those prior encounters with "Death of a Salesman" came close to the emotional intensity of Nichols’ production.

While waiting in line for the show, I saw a poster proclaiming “TONY NOMINATED FOR BEST LIGHTING.” As it turned out, the nomination was well deserved. The staging of daytime, nighttime, and memory scenes all contrast in a way that takes audiences through time and place while watching Loman’s house light up from different angles. During the night scenes, the orange glow from the boys’ upstairs window stand out from the rest of the darkened house. The headlights of Willie’s car as he drives to his death flashes into the eyes of the audience, to bring them directly into the fear and drama of the characters.

Perhaps because my friends and I used to spend hours dissecting the acting ticks of our classmates, I always pay obsessive attention to the physical choices the actors make.

Hoffman leaves his mouth slightly open when not talking, a physical tick that effectively conveys a sense of the character’s age and despair. Garfield punches Biff’s little brother in the play when his character gets excited––a burst of energy Biff cannot control and does not notice. Emond clenches her fists when she is standing up for her husband. The combination of nuanced acting, excellent staging, and direction gave me chills.

While the subject matter of the play certainly reminded me of the economic woes of our contemporary world, the genius of Mike Nichols’ "Death of a Salesman" is in its brilliant production elements which gives audiences an opportunity to appreciate the staging, lighting and the physical choices of individual characters. The meticulous craftsmanship of the play stands out as its strongest feature.

Blogging from New York City, Virginia R. Marshall surveys the city's artistic heartbeat.

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