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Wendell Pierce breathes new life into Death of a Salesman

By Ken Mask

In the beginning was the word – and it was good.

Then came Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman – and the word was better.

Death of a Salesman is widely considered among the greatest plays ever by an American playwright.

The story of Willy Loman, his put-upon, loving wife and his two ne’er-do-well sons has resonated with theatergoers since its debut in 1949. After opening night, New York Daily News theater critic John Chapman called it “unforgettable… All is right and nothing is wrong.”

And he wrote that without having seen Wendell Pierce as the lead actor.

It’s hard to imagine a more powerful, controlled, nuanced performance of the overwhelmed paterfamilias than Pierce’s.

Heavyweights from Lee J. Cobb, who was the original Willy, through Dustin Hoffman, Brian Dennehy and George C. Scott have all put their interpretation into poor Willy and all have been justifiably acclaimed. I’ve seen some of those performances from my couch via the magic of the internet and they were incredible, but it’s hard to imagine anyone bringing more to the role than Pierce.

So you’ve seen it before, know the story backward and forward, can’t imagine anyone excelling what has come before?

Well, step right this way.

My son and I made our way to Broadway, navigated the concrete jungle where the neon lights are bright even in the middle of the day - and arrived at the Hudson Theater.

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that Pierce is a dear friend of mine. Even if I didn’t know him, though, I'd say that he captains the current Broadway presentation of Death of a Salesman with startling vibrancy.

That is a conclusion seconded by most critics who’ve seen his performance.

His “Willy” has been aptly described as strong, weak and vulnerable. His baritone rises to magnificent heights and plunges to despairing lows. After one performance, I asked him how it felt portraying one of the most coveted male roles in Broadway history.

“This is not only the highlight of my career," he told me, "but the highlight of my life – the distillation of my life’s work coming together in a cathartic moment of epiphany.”

His performance is ably supported by Sharon D. Clarke, who plays wife Linda, and sons Khris Davis as Biff and McKinley Belcher III as Happy. They make up the central family and take the audience on a rollercoaster odyssey of post-depression 1940s economic uncertainty.

The subtle opening with Linda waiting for her husband to come home sets the stage. She is hopeful and patient, awaiting the impending, invariable angst. Willy arrives, two suitcases in tow, metaphorically representing before and after, life and impending death.

"It's all right. I came back."

Those are the first words he - with world-weary resignation - speaks.

However, nothing prepares you for the wonderfully pulsed, heart-wrenching, tear-jerking performance Pierce delivers. Along the way, you pull for Loman to break free of his psychoses. You pull for him to regain professional competence and to make it in the face of ageism and paternal disappointment.

Here is a father who wants only the best for everyone around him. He is a horticulturist. He wants to be responsible for the growth and development of those around him; to prune and to water and to fertilize, even as his own dreams wither on the vine.

Director Miranda Crowell expertly uses space and taps into the strengths of each actor. Her efforts demonstrate no anxiety to impress; the play is wonderfully paced with dangling drop down set designs for various scenes, and her strobe pictorials add flavor to Willy’s dream states. Andre De Shield’s “Ben” – bejeweled and immaculate in his white-on-white, international man of mystery suits - is poetic and strong as he tauntingly beckons Willy to join him in his pursuit of riches in the jungle.

The highs of Pierce’s hopes and the lows of his dashed dreams are excellent, terrific reminders of our own. This is what art does, it portrays our world with intensely precise mirrors.

In the beginning was the word – and it was good.

In the hands of Miller and Pierce, it is better.

The play ends its run Jan. 15, but it’s a certainty that it will be back.

Like Willy.





Meet Barry Saunders

For over 20 years, Barry was a columnist for The News & Observer in Raleigh, NC. He also wrote for other publications, such as the Atlanta Constitution and the Richmond County Daily Journal. Often described as powerfully honest and illustratively funny, Barry's writing is both loved and hated by readers- sometimes simultaneously.  


Want more? Get your own copy of one of Barry's published books featuring reader favorites (and not so favorites) from his years writing columns for The News & Observer. Titled "Do Unto Others...And then Run" and "...And The Horse You Rode In On Saunders!", they're full of guaranteed entertainment. 


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