‘Death of a Salesman’ Review: Groundbreaking Broadway Revival Packs a Mighty Punch

In the new Broadway revival of “Death of a Salesman,” Wendell Pierce’s powerhouse performance firmly identifies Willy Loman as a tragic hero for these modern times. It’s a searing portrait of a working-class man who has struggled all his life to achieve. Not a man who works with his hands, or on an assembly line, but a man — a Black man — who goes to work in a suit and is welcomed wherever he goes by clients who greet him with a grin and a handshake. As a traveling salesman, he has dignity, respect and a shot at the American Dream, so long as he maintains his footing on the ladder of success — and pulls up his two sons behind him. If Willy should lose his job, he’ll lose that dignity, that respect, that place in society which defines him as a successful Black man in a white man’s world.

There’s no doubt that casting a Black actor as Willy Loman (for the first time on Broadway, no less) adds a deeper dimension to this monumental role. And who knows what other, future interpreters might find in the character. It’s worth remembering that back when Arthur Miller’s now-celebrated American tragedy originally opened on Broadway, many people were unsettled by the floundering character of Willy. In the postwar America they knew in 1948, Miller’s protagonist seemed almost anti-American.

But as this production from the Young Vic Theatre in London reminds us, Arthur Miller’s 1949 drama packs a mighty punch. Pierce portrays Willy as a hero for both his time and ours — a complex human being with grave character flaws, but “a good man” for all that. Under the careful direction of Miranda Cromwell, Pierce sensitively scrutinizes this deluded man’s foolish worship of the American Dream, which he narrowly interprets as material success.

Pierce goes so far as to make Willy so obsessed with his distorted values that he even seems capable of violence, something you don’t see in most contemporary performances, which invariably stress the pathos of his delusional worship of success. It’s a gesture easy to miss, but in one startling moment, he physically shoves his wife when she tries to reason with him.

Linda Loman is a character who can fade into the woodwork, just waiting for her great defining moment at the end of the play when she declares that “attention must be paid” to her success-driven husband. Not so in Sharon D. Clarke’s brilliant performance, which finds astonishing character nuances in this long-suffering but often underplayed wife-figure. The actor (“Caroline, or Change”) also has the distinction of delivering her lines with crystal clarity, a professional virtue that some of the other players occasionally neglect.

Khris Davis gives an outstanding performance as Biff Loman, the older son burdened with achieving Willy’s pipe dreams. There’s an underlying sweetness to his conflicted feelings for his father, ashamed of the old man’s impossible vision of Biff’s chances of achieving greatness and yet desperate to fulfill those hopes.

Among the rest of the well-cast ensemble, Andre De Shields delivers another of his showboat turns as Willy’s fantasy version of his brother, Ben, who achieved real success in the African diamond trade, probably by treating his native workers like dogs. Costumers Anna Fleischle and Sarita Fellows make inspired choices for Ben’s flamboyant costume, deciding on a white suit dripping with bling — Willy’s dreamy vision of material “success.”

Jen Schriever’s lighting design boldly differentiates such flashes of fantasy from the more realistic but still shape-shifting scenes of Willy’s passage from emotional distress to suicidal despair. These lighting tip-offs are especially helpful because the play gets no help from the set, a stridently abstract nowheresville that inspires a fierce urge to escape.