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In 1949, the year that Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play, life expectancy for American men was 65 years. Miller beat the odds for his own generation handily: He was 89 when died in 2005. More mysteriously, he was only in his early thirties when he wrote what remains the best contemporary play about the horror of aging and decay—whatever else it may say about the grinding wheels of capitalism.
Willy Loman, that 60-something salesman who [spoiler warning] dies, is, paradoxically, the Miller character who seems the most proof against expiration. One need look no further than the sturdy, stirring production of Salesman at Ford’s Theatre to celebrate—or mourn—his unlikely resilience.
It’s notable, still, that a person of color has been cast in the role, but what makes this production essential is that it’s Craig Wallace in Loman’s shabby suit. He’s a decade younger than the character, but that’s no matter. Wallace has worked steadily all over town for 30 years. I’ve seen him in a dozens of plays but never this varied in his choices or this vulnerable. The name “Willy Loman” conjures a slight figure, but Wallace’s stocky, powerful frame makes Loman’s descent in dementia all the more tragic to observe. He’s superb.
So, too, is Tim Mackabee’s set, a multi-story structure of disembodied windows that suggests the cathedral of memory in which Loman increasingly lives. The many scenes in which he vanishes into his own past for several moments before we’re reminded, by one of the frightened onlookers—a waiter, a secretary—that he’s hallucinating and talking to himself are achieved seamlessly, without obvious changes to the lighting palette or sonic clues.
The balance of the casting is just as astute: Kimberly Schraf, Wallace’s real-life partner of two decades, plays Linda, the wife who’s buoyed by the nostalgic scent of shaving lotion in her home and who wants only for her husband’s suffering to end. It’s not one of the great roles, but Schraf gives a great performance, buffeting away the excess of sentimentality that will always threaten to overwhelm the stage as Linda informs Willy’s headstone that she’s at last paid off the house. As the couple’s adult sons, Hap and Biff, Danny Gavigan and Thomas Keegan have the unenviable jobs of making their postwar slang and jocular ribbing sound less corny and frankly, queer, than it may have when the play was new, and also of inhabiting their characters both as adolescents and grown men. They’re terrific, but Keegan especially, as the faded jock who never recovered from the wounds of his adolescence. Some guys disappoint their distant fathers and turn into John Cheever or Bruce Springsteen; some of them, like Biff, turn into nothing. He and Willy are both victims of their great expectations for one another, and the tragedy that turns on their mutual disappointment remains vibrant in its old age.
At Ford’s Theatre to Oct. 22. 511 10th St. NW. $25–$62. (202) 347-4833. fords.org.