'Death of a Salesman': Theater Review

Brinkhoff Mogenburg
From left: Joseph Mydell and Wendell Pierce in 'Death of a Salesman'
American classic becomes African-American classic.
7/13/2019

'The Wire' and 'Suits' star Wendell Pierce makes his London stage debut as Arthur Miller's downtrodden everyman in this musically enhanced revival, which recasts the Lomans as a struggling black family.

There was no sign of Meghan Markle in the celeb-sprinkled audience when her former on-screen father, Wendell Pierce, made his London stage debut in Death of a Salesman. Pierce has invited his Suits co-star to come see him play Arthur Miller's everyman antihero Willy Loman, but apparently Meghan is having a busy week.

Frankly, it was her loss. Because co-directors Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell have done a magnificent job of reimagining Miller's Pulitzer-winning post-mortem on the American Dream, giving it an explicitly African-American standpoint while remaining impressively faithful to the text and late-1940s Brooklyn setting. Woven with musical interludes that sometimes elevate speech into song, this lyrical production is not so much a radical remix as a classy rearrangement of a much-loved melody. It is an inspired idea, transforming Miller into that most American of storytelling archetypes: the bluesman.

Miller fans have been deluged to the point of saturation recently, with multiple revivals popping up in both London and New York. Just minutes away from the Young Vic, Sally Field and Bill Pullman are currently co-starring in All My Sons at the Old Vic. Acclaimed productions of The American Clock, The Price and The Crucible have already graced the West End this year. But this deep dive into the 70-year-old Death of a Salesmen can hold its own against any competition. The marquee allure of Pierce’s TV fame from The Wire, Treme, Suits and elsewhere will undoubtedly help fill seats, but in any case this is a terrific re-scoring of an ageless American classic, soulful and supple and packed with gutsy performances.

Pierce covers the full emotional spectrum with his powerhouse turn as Willy, the soul-weary traveling salesman trying to keep himself afloat with fantasies of greatness while his family, finances and mental state fall apart. This huge, verbose, shape-shifting role requires great stamina to pull off, and Pierce rises to the challenge admirably.

Willy’s insistence that he has built a career on sheer personal charm, a dubious claim undercut by Miller’s text, rings true on this occasion. He may be a brawny bear of a man onstage, but Pierce dances and weaves through his dialogue like a jazz musician, breathing life and levity into creaky old lines that might otherwise sound didactic and leaden. Who knew so much of Death of a Salesman works as laugh-out-loud comedy?

Most of the play’s dramatic heat arises from the rival versions of reality being fought over between Willy and his two grown-up sons, disillusioned drifter Biff and self-deluding playboy Happy (Arinzé Kene and Martins Imhangbe, both excellent in highly physical performances).

Playing peacemaker between all three is Willy’s wife Linda, who can sometimes come across as too much of an idealized martyr figure, her interior life drowned out by the bullying, boorish men of the family. Thankfully this production puts Linda at the heart of the action for much of its three-hour span. In a riveting performance by Olivier Award winner Sharon D. Clarke, Linda radiates fiercely protective love towards her warring menfolk, but her love is tempered by matriarchal rage when they step out of line. Fiery and alert onstage, Clarke gives persuasive power to some of Miller's famously clunky lines ("He's only a little boat looking for a harbor") while her strong singing voice, warm and melismatic, finds transcendence even in tragedy.

This is not the first production of Miller's evergreen social drama to reimagine the Lomans as a struggling black family. The obvious link between racism, social class and financial inequality has been drawn many times before. All the same, directors Elliott and Cromwell have found fresh ways to highlight the play's political nuances, teasing out the unspoken racial tensions of postwar New York. Even though Miller's text remains intact, certain words and wordless gestures acquire extra charge given the changed context — the loaded term "boy," for example. Likewise the painfully uneven power dynamic when Willy borrows money from his white neighbor Charley (Trevor Cooper), or begs for a life-saving job from his haughty young white boss Howard (Matthew Seadon-Young).

On a macro level, Death of a Salesmen is clearly concerned with social class, capitalism and the fantasy that all men are created equal. But on a more personal scale, it is also about love, family, stubborn pride, toxic masculinity and suicidal depression.

Elliott and Cromwell accentuate mental health issues more acutely here than many previous productions, dramatizing the horror of Willy's bipolar mood swings and time-scrambled flashbacks with freeze-frame poses, dreamlike slow motion, staccato sound design and jarring tonal shifts. Miller's original title, The Inside of His Head, has rarely felt so faithfully mirrored in the staging choices, a welcome reminder that he was as much midcentury modernist as earnest social realist.

Adding to this sense of mental fragmentation is Anne Fleischle's artfully minimal set, an exploded house interior with free-floating window frames and furniture suspended high above the stage. Also key to this production is composer and musical director Femi Temowo, whose credits include playing with George Benson and Amy Winehouse. Appearing onstage sporadically throughout the evening with a guitar in his hands, Temowo gives the drama a gentle bluesy heartbeat punctuated by rousing bursts of redemptive revivalist fervor, most notably in the recurring gospel number "When The Trumpets Sound."

This musical dimension helps sweeten the occasional minor flaw — a wobbly accent here, a cumbersome speech there — in an otherwise masterful production that opens like a ballad and ends like a symphony.

Venue: Young Vic, London
Cast: Wendell Pierce, Sharon D. Clarke, Martins Imhangbe, Arinzé Kene, Ian Bonar, Trevor Cooper, Joseph Mydell, Nenda Neurer, Jennifer Saayeng, Matthew Seadon-Young, Maggie Service
Directors: Marianne Elliott, Miranda Cromwell
Playwright: Arthur Miller
Set and costume designer: Anna Fleischle
Lighting designer: Aideen Malone
Sound designer: Carolyn Downing
Music and musical director: Femi Temowo
Presented by Young Vic, Elliott & Harper Productions, Cindy Tolan