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THEATER REVIEW: Old Globe shows why "Death Of A Salesman" is Arthur Miller's best work

“Do what you love, and the money will follow.”

If Willy Loman (Jeffrey DeMunn) had heeded that bit of old folk wisdom, he might not be what he is today: an aging but unsuccessful traveling salesman, broken and sad.

Willy should have been a carpenter. He’s good with his hands, has enjoyed fixing up the house, and as elder son Biff (Lucas Caleb Rooney) points out, “There’s more of him in that front stoop than in all the sales he ever made.”

Instead, he has spent his life in work which suits neither his talents nor interests: he bought the false promises of wealth and popularity touted by American capitalism, even tried to push sons Biff and Happy (Tyler Pierce) in that direction as well.

Now, 30-some years later, when he should be relaxing in comfortable retirement, this shuffling shell of a man is still on the road, relegated to the worst traveling route the company offers.

He makes almost no sales, but still he drives, trying to convince himself that a big deal is right around the corner. Meanwhile, the family survives on handouts from kindly neighbor Charley (John Procaccino).

Willy talks a good game, which no one believes. But sometimes he simply withdraws into reverie, where he can bask in the reflected glory of Biff’s successes on the high school football field and the promise that brought. Occasionally wealthy older brother Uncle Ben (Adrian Sparks) appears in gleaming white, counseling a move to Alaska, where Ben made his fortune.

Pam Mackinnon shows a sure directorial hand in the Old Globe’s production of Arthur Miller’s “Death Of A Salesman,” that classic portrait of the American dream gone wrong, playing through Feb. 27 at the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre.

Willy’s wife Linda (Robin Moseley) has raised his two sons and stuck with him through thin and thinner. They are cheered somewhat by the fact that favorite son Biff has come home.

But even this is bittersweet: Biff, the popular football star (being “well-liked” is of utmost importance to Willy), has fumbled since those school days. With no high school diploma (due to a failed math class), he drifted into petty thievery and has since done itinerant physical labor on ranches and farms – which Willy interprets as more evidence of his own failure.

Meanwhile the younger Hap, modestly successful as a sales clerk, drowns his lack of work enthusiasm in self-admittedly meaningless serial sexual encounters and appears to be headed down his father’s path.

Willy’s worries about his own driving – he’s been spacing out on the road – push him to ask boss Howard Wagner (Jonathan Spivey) for a desk job. His fate is sealed when Howard fires him.

DeMunn’s Willy is a heartbreaker, beaten down and equally given to instant rages and escapes into fantasy. It’s a wonder his crazymaking behavior hasn’t driven Linda away.

Moseley is a model of quiet dignity and patience (if not downright martyrdom) as Linda, sticking up for him and insisting that “attention must be paid.”

Pierce’s Hap may be the saddest of all – a copy of his dad, asking and giving little, willing to settle.

Rooney’s Biff is the only character who sees the truth – “We never told the truth for ten minutes in this house!” – and the one who finally realizes what he really wants.

Written for a proscenium stage, set designer Marion Williams’ adaptations include a stepped structure dividing the house’s rooms and “walls” that are raised before each act. The walls are a clever idea, but unnecessary and do not seem to add much to the production.

“Death Of A Salesman,” part of the Old Globe’s “Classics Up Close” series, won both a Pulitzer and six Tonys and is regarded as Miller’s best play. This production shows why.

The details

“Death Of A Salesman” plays through Feb. 27 at the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre.

Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday at 7 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.

For tickets, call (619) 234-5623 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.