Death of a Salesman

It may be that Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” is the greatest American drama ever written. That view is commonly held, anyway, and regardless of which superlatives one chooses to attach to it, it is beyond question a complicated, difficult piece, and any theater attempting it has its work cut out for it.

Little Brown Theatre owner Bill Brown’s eyes may have been bigger than his stomach when he selected the play. Certainly they were when he pegged himself to play Willy Loman, the titular salesman and the American equivalent of Hamlet in terms of complexity.

People have written doctoral theses on this play; I question whether any community theater could pull it off — especially one whose prior “heavy drama” experience begins and ends with “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

But for all the strikes against it, the Little Brown Theatre production of “Death of a Salesman” succeeds more than it fails, and in some ways it succeeds quite admirably. This was a huge piece of meat to bite off; that the production doesn’t choke on it and die is already impressive.

It is set in the year it was written, 1949, when the modern “American dream” was just being shaped and some people were realizing they’d been cheated out of it. Willy Loman is one of those men. A traveling salesman for 36 years, he has lost his touch and lost the respect of his employers and his sons. His behavior is increasingly erratic.

Dane Allred is the director here, and the task seems to have overwhelmed him. He lets actors deliver some lines in a way that is just plain wrong, and the occasional chanting that comes from offstage is an innovation that distracts more than anything. There is a good deal of unmotivated blocking, too — actors walking around for no reason.

Willy is full of contradictions. One moment he says he’s “well-liked”; the next moment, he says, “People don’t take to me.” He could be played as a raving old lunatic or a doddering fool — and both of those would be wrong. He’s a real person, albeit one stretched to the breaking point.

Brown plays him on one note: befuddled. Willy’s anger and frustration come across as mere crankiness. On opening night, Brown had to expend so much effort just to remember his lines that he had little room left to do any acting. In his hands, Willy rages a lot, thrusts his hands in his pocket a lot, and babbles a lot — but he does not penetrate the heart the way a real person would.

Kaye Woodworth, meanwhile, is utterly believable as Willy’s wife, Linda. She is harried and worried, unsure how to help Willy but certain she still loves him. Woodworth provides the show’s emotional center.

Between the sons, Daryl A. Ball has the juicier role, that of former football hero Biff. The angular and all-American-looking Ball is well-cast in the role, and his fiery emotion near the end is a roaring burst of energy.

This production does not penetrate the heart the way it ought to; it may strike audiences as just another drama. But the gold is there, and the good people at the Little Brown Theatre have mined a bit of it — enough to make it a show worth seeing.

Should you go? Everyone should see “Death of a Salesman” sometime; this production is solid enough.

When this theater announced it would be doing this show, it caused no small stir in the local theater community. It seemed like Bill Brown had chosen it as a vanity project: He wanted his theater to do it because he wanted to play the lead role. Either he thought he was good enough to play it, or he didn't realize how hard the role was. Either way, it spelled trouble.

It turned out quite a bit better than it might have. It still didn't even begin to do justice to the brilliance of the text, but look at it another way: In nearly five years of reviewing theater, this was the first time I'd seen "Death of a Salesman" performed. More theaters should challenge themselves this way more often.

I went directly from the performance to the airport, headed for London for a vacation. I wrote this review on a notepad -- the first time I'd written anything long-hand in six or seven years -- and e-mailed it back to the Herald as soon as I got to a computer.