“Attention must be paid,’’ Linda Loman famously tells her son Biff in Arthur Miller’s 1949 Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winner, “Death of a Salesman.’’ Linda is talking about her husband, Willy, who in her opinion warrants attention because “he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him.’’
“Death of a Salesman’’ has never lacked for attention, and its story of a man in desperate economic straits isn’t likely to date anytime soon. But it’s such an icon of the American theater that it doesn’t turn up on stage as often as it might. The current Lyric Stage production directed by Spiro Veloudos pays close attention to what Miller wrote, and it boasts superb performances by Ken Baltin as Willy and Paula Plum as Linda.
Miller ensured that attention would be paid to the staging he wanted by describing the Lomans’ Brooklyn, N.Y., house in irritatingly precise detail on the first two pages of the script. Janie E. Howland’s set fills the bill. Her kitchen, where the action of the play is centered, is an American nightmare, from the shabby linoleum floor to the dingy Hastings refrigerator with Linda’s sewing basket and Willy’s tiny green saccharine bottle on top. The small Magic Chef range, its enamel all cracked, has a coffee percolator on one burner and a knitted potholder hanging from a magnet. The Lomans’ bedroom is visible to one side and their sons’ bedroom is overhead, as prescribed. Doors and windows are merely suggested, also as per Miller’s instructions, and in the background are intimations of the apartment buildings, illuminated by shafts of light, that hem the Lomans in.
The beauty of “Death of a Salesman’’ is that it indicts the American dream without exonerating the American dreamer. The Lomans are all dreamers; self-deception is the family calling card. And the Lyric resists the temptation to ennoble them. Willy is not the victim of a system that chews him up and spits him out; Linda is not the heroine who holds the family together; Biff was flunking math and stealing footballs even before he discovered Willy’s philandering. The characters do tip toward the sympathetic, but never more than Miller allows.
Lugging his two heavy sample cases, his voice a stammering whisper, Baltin’s Willy seems to have the weight of the world on his shoulders. He doesn’t wallow in self-pity, however, and when he waxes poetic about the trees and the sun and the warm air, you can almost forgive him for imagining that Biff, now 34 and unemployed, is going to get $15,000 from a former boss and open a “Loman Line’’ of sporting goods with younger brother Happy. Baltin, with his schlum-py walk, expresses character through body language, and so does Plum, who makes a remarkable transition from the perky younger Linda of Willy’s flashbacks to her dejected current self.
The sons are appropriately lightweight. Kelby T. Akin’s Biff, loose-jointed and sporting a Texas drawl, has no core; when he tells Happy, in the “Requiem’’ epilogue, “I know who I am, kid,’’ it’s clear he only knows who he isn’t. Joseph Marrella’s smug Happy has style but no substance. Larry Coen’s successful Uncle Charley is rough and a little vulgar, suggesting what it takes to get ahead in Miller’s world. The rest of the cast, which includes Victor L. Shopov as Charley’s lawyer son, Bernard, and Will McGarrahan as a courtly, enigmatic Uncle Ben, is solid.
Miller’s “Requiem,’’ after Willy has killed himself for the $20,000 insurance money, invites sentimentality, with Charley describing Willy as “riding on a smile and a shoeshine’’ and Linda sobbing a tearful farewell. The Lyric resists that as well, holding simple and sincere to the end. This “Death of a Salesman’’ might not be the land of the free, but it is the home of the brave.