Sunday, April 30, 2017

Sold on Public Theater’s "Death of a Salesman

 Kathleen McNenny and Zach Grenier Credit: Michael Henninger

Fifteen minutes into Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production of Arthur Miller’s American classic tragedy "Death of a Salesman," I felt like getting up out of my seat and buying something from the distraught itinerant salesman. Such was the empathy I shared with the title character.

One "W" short of Lowman, Willy Loman worked for decades at the same job, peddling merchandise from a sample case up through New England from his home base in Brooklyn. As a young man enthused about the possibilities of a career in sales, he helped build the company he worked for and became one of its early golden boys.

Now at the age of 63, his glitter is tarnished, his enthusiasm waning, his energy level plummeting, his sales few and far between, his physical and mental health degrading, his bills hard to meet.

Furthermore, he’s becoming physically inept and prone to wrecking his car on his extensive sales route. To make things easier on his aging body and mind, he begs his boss, the original owner’s son, (Joseph Domencic) to let him work the New York store where he offers to put in hours for peanuts. Instead of getting this paltry golden parachute (the best he could muster), he gets the suggestion that he take time off and rest at a time when he desperately needs money.

To make matters worse, his two sons, both in the early 30s are living at home. Biff (Alex Mickiewicz), 34, is back from a stay out West where he worked the farms and ranches. It was a far cry from what Willy expected of a son who starred on his high school football team and seemed to have a promising future.

Hap (Maxwell Eddy), 32, while employed, is in a dead end job and seems motivated only by the thought of seducing young ladies. (Two of his encounters are played saucily by Kristiann Menotiades and Daina Michelle Griffith). Philandering, it appears, is his major life goal.

Add into the mix a heap of guilt, disillusionment, family bickering and a dose of poverty and you end up with a formula for disaster that almost lets you foresee what’s coming.

(left to right) Zach Grenier and Tuck Milligan Credit: Michael Henninger
One shining light in the dark scenario is Linda (Kathleen McNenny), the family matriarch, an adoring wife and warm mother who holds the family together like duct tape on a cardboard box. Another plus is neighbor, Charley (Randy Kovitz), who lends him money when needed but cultivates the same sort of contentious relationship with Willy Neil Simon created for "The Odd Couple."

In his play, Miller incorporates an interesting device that skews time and actually calls for Willy’s memories to be acted out in real time. Characters from his past, especially that of his successful brother Ben (Tuck Milligan), appear on stage interacting with him simultaneously with others living in the present. As a result, Willy’s past accomplishments and lost opportunities live along side his current malaise like some banshee ghost, some gadfly intent on tormenting him.
 Alex Mickiewicz, Zach Grenier, Maxwell Eddy Credit: Michael Henninger

As the titular salesman, veteran film, stage and television actor, Zach Grenier, handles the hefty, demanding role with an uncanny ease and brings a palpable believability to the character. To paraphrase an old saw, true artistry is making something tough and arduous look like a day in the park.

Like the play’s other characters, Grenier doesn’t attempt to mimic the accents of his Brooklyn neighbors but speaks his lines with clarity and deep-voiced vigor with the inflection news anchor.
His Willy can show weakness and vulnerability as well as strength. He can flare up into a rage, retreat into a emotional shell and portray the depth of his character’s anxiety, fears and panic with equal dramatic veracity.

Because I didn’t get to see the great Willy Lomam’s of the past like Brian Dennehy, Dustin Hoffman and Philip Seymour Hoffman, so touted by the theater connoisseurs of Broadway, I have no previous experience to serve as a template to compare Grenier’s performance. It was my first live performance of the 1949 classic, and I was truly impressed with Grenier as well as the rest of the Public Theater ensemble.
Shaun Hall and Zach Grenier Credit: Michael Henninger

In a minor role that makes a major impact, Shaun Camneron Hall as Bernard, Charley’s son, maneuvers an impressive metamorphosis from a submissive bookworm to later become a lawyer with so much clout he gets to argue a case before the Supreme Court. The latter revelation smacks Willy particularly hard in light of the mediocre accomplishments of his own two sons.

James Noone’s simple set (two twin beds on a raised dais in one corner for the boys and another full sized bed in the other for Willy and Linda) plus assorted ephemera was substantial enough to let the imagination fill in the blanks in a production that’s really performance-centered.

The bent time element of the play was underscored and enhanced by lighting designer, Dennis Parichy’s clever splashes and splays of  illuminated hues and costume designer, Tilly Grimes’ outfits were spot on for their post-World War Two feel.

It takes nearly three hours for the drama to reach its climax, but it’s time well spent and flies by quickly. Director Mary B. Robinson sold me on the merits of Miller’s best-known work. My only regret is that it took me so long to see it live, on stage and so well-conceived and performed.

"Death of a Salesman," a production of Pittsburgh Public Theater, is at the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Avenue in Downtown Pittsburgh through May 21. For tickets, phone 412-316-1600 or online at

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