We are all Willy's children now 

Theatre Downtown is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a solid production of Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller's revered drama that turns 60 this year. The production demonstrates what a double-edged blade nostalgia can be; even when the past isn't as perfect as we pretend, living in it can be preferable to the painful present.

Willy Loman (James Zelley), a dime-a-dozen traveling salesman, is tired. Tired of schlepping in his Studebaker from Brooklyn to Boston, scrounging commissions from his dwindling pool of buyers. Tired of worrying after his deadbeat sons: shiftless, philandering Hap (Daniel Cooksley) and tarnished golden boy Biff (Dean Walkuski). Tired of feigning hope for his doting wife, Linda (Cira Larkin), his mental state as fragile as the couple's aging off-brand refrigerator's fan belt. A salesman rides "on a smile and a shoeshine," but Loman's soles are worn and the dentist's bill is overdue.

Loman is one of the meatiest roles in the modern canon, and Zelley (who starred as Teach in Mamet's American Buffalo, Theatre Downtown's first production in 1989) is up to the challenge of tackling this mountain of a molehill. Physically splitting the difference between Brian Dennehy's "walrus" take and Dustin Hoffman's "shrimp," Zelley finds unexpected Archie-and-Edith humor with Larkin (patiently restrained throughout) in the early scenes and holds nothing back in depicting Willy's second-act deterioration. Walkuski, who throws himself into physicalizing Biff's promise and pathos, matches Zelley in sound and fury. Cooksley provides the tragic-comic relief, along with Stephen Pugh as nerdy neighbor Bernard, with his dependable dissolution. The supporting cast varies widely in skill level, but Ashland Thomas stands out as the heartless boss who is more interested in his primitive TiVo than a man's survival.

Thanks to Frank Hilgenberg's muscular direction — aided by Tom Mangieri's multilevel set and Aaron Babcock's understated lighting — this is the fleetest-feeling production of Salesman I've seen. It's also the loudest, and while some subtleties are shouted over, you can't criticize the cast's voluble passion. Here in the winter of the Great Recession, we wonder if Willy is the victim of unfeeling capitalism, or a faithful worker wondering who moved his Swiss cheese? Or is he the cause of our collapse, with his lust for instant riches (embodied by his ghostly brother Ben, played by mellifluous Lee Lupton) and elevation of being "well-liked" over compassion or competence? Loman's fall is small stuff in the global scheme, but "attention must be paid" to the little man, for his tragedy is as epic as any ancient king's.

Seth Kubersky

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