Most people who see Arthur Miller's masterpiece Death of A Salesman feel that they know a Willy Loman in real life, though each knows a different Willy Loman. That great character is so richly conceived that he seems painfully real and right, even in completely varied castings.
Originally, two very different actors brilliantly played Willy on Broadway. First powerful, bull-like Lee J. Cobb seemed a confused, fallen giant. Then smaller, crafty Thomas Mitchell made Willy a weak, defensive blowhard. Both approaches worked beautifully.
Even so, Geva's first-rate production of Death of A Salesman stars an excellent actor who seems miscast in the role. James Edmondson's presence and delivery haven't the command and charisma of any of the 14 other actors I've seen in the role, starting with Cobb and Mitchell.
But, though he seems better suited to play a pretentious minor official, Edmondson offers a consistent, intelligently conceived, and genuine portrayal that has passion and honesty. In his best moments, he interacts with his fellow actors thrillingly.
What this Willy Loman doesn't convey to me is the likability that makes all the other characters --- except his current employer --- regard him with such affection. Nor does he make me feel the terrible pathos of this man betrayed by his false dreams into terminal unhappiness. So the emotional responses to the drama come mostly from the moving performances by the actors playing his sons, friend, and wife.
Though his mind is becoming clouded by age and he loses his job, Willy Loman's actual circumstances are not pitiable. He has a loving, supportive wife and two handsome, healthy sons, has paid for his home and furnishings, and his neighbor, Charley, offers him continuing employment.
But Willy believes that a man keeps up with the Joneses; he doesn't work for them. Even his son Biff has been so poisoned by this idea that he can't be happy on a farm doing what he loves unless he could own the farm and thus "get ahead" and "be somebody." Willy's favorite word is "remarkable," and he destroys himself because he cannot accept that he is unremarkable --- a fine, decent, low man.
The play is, among other things, an indictment of the phony American Dream that insists on being "ahead of the rest." Willy believes that people win by being "admired and liked," not by doing something that earns rewards. Yet the honorable dignity of the salesman is respected by the realistic, financially successful Charley, who offers the great "man riding on a smile and a shoeshine" eulogy at Willy's funeral.
Among the many felicities of Munson Hicks' splendid, offbeat Charley is his simple, conversational delivery of that eulogy, which most actors play as if trumpeting, "I've got the best speech in this play!" It isn't, actually. Neither is wife Linda's memorable "attention must be paid" speech to her sons (emotionally very effective in Jeanne Paulsen's angry version).
The great speeches are the ordinary ones among family members. Miller's ear is so perfect that these speeches just sound like what these people would actually say, not written dialogue to quote.
I particularly like Hicks' Charley, Christian Kohn's virile, intensely vulnerable older son, Biff, and Stephen Key's enormously appealing younger son, Happy. Kohn is heartbreaking in Biff's big final confrontation with his father. And Key gets Happy's frivolous, undependable immaturity but also his painful sense of insecurity and affection. That role is also too often played with stereotypical gimmicks.
With effortless skill, Joe Hickey develops Bernard's growth from nerdy, bookish school-chum ("liked, but not well-liked") to mature, successful lawyer. Jeanne Paulsen is strong in her interaction with the family as Linda Loman, especially good in scenes with the sons --- though, again, she has real help from Key and Kohn. I thought her oddly dominant Linda was more effectively fervent in anger than in sadness.
Matt D'Amico as Willy's unfeeling employer Howard is actually more attentive to Willy than usual. Most Howards hardly look at or listen to this employee, but do seem more shocked when Willy starts to rant.
J.G. Hertzler plays Willy's brother Ben with dignity and none of the caricature that the role sometimes attracts, but he does look like an idealized icon of the "great" man. ("That man was a genius!" says Willy of his brother, who went to Alaska to find gold but ended up making a fortune in diamonds in Africa. The "plan" was evidently part dumb luck and part a terrible sense of direction.)
I'm perhaps biased by familiarity toward Alex North's background music for the film and stage productions, but John Zeretzke's score works well enough. Erhard Rom's unit set (with furniture brought on for changes from house to restaurant to offices) is familiar and suitable, as is B. Modern's costume design. I thought Kendall Smith's lighting design more distinctively helpful to the drama.
But all the staging and performances are unusually well integrated into director Skip Greer's lucid, entirely dramatically sound overview of this great drama. Its central character (Miller's original concept was that the whole play takes place within Willy Loman's head) may not be as indelible, volatile, and involving as he can be, but it is beautifully acted with considerable integrity. And the play's stature as an American classic remains unmistakable.
Death of A Salesman,by Arthur Miller, directed by Skip Greer, plays at Geva Theatre Center, 75 Woodbury Boulevard, through March 21, Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 and 8:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Three added shows are on Friday, March 26, at 7 p.m., and Saturday, March 27, at 2 and 7:30 p.m.Tix: $13 to $47.50. 232-4382, www.gevatheatre.org.