In the Olney Theatre Center's restrained, respectful revival of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," Traber Burns plays Willy Loman as a bad actor who doesn't know the stage isn't really his. From the moment he enters and starts telling Linda, his worried but ever-supportive wife, about his latest sales trip, Burns's Willy is a desperate performer, talking, improvising, filling the room with noise and hope. Willy's life is all an act, and Biff--his bitter, disillusioned son--is the critic who kills the show.
Willy's successful neighbor Charley describes the American salesman this way: "He's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine." In Willy's case, it's more like a song and dance, and he can be a maddening figure as Burns shows you the used-up performer whose shtick has run dry.
Willy is a deliberately terrible listener (which goes hand in hand with being a tone-deaf chatterbox). Burns, who cuts a rumpled, craggy figure here, has a commanding voice, and his Willy uses it with the bravura of an opera singer whenever he starts to hear about things he'd rather not: Biff's chronic failures, for instance, or the fact that Howard, Willy's young boss, is letting him go.
In this production, at least, Miller's play is less about some flaw in the American scheme than it is about what happens when weak, unimaginative guys like Willy get the wrong idea. It's also about what happens when he infects his fawning sons with the same poisonous notions.
Willy is never more alive than when he has Biff and Happy, his adoring sons--at least in earlier years--at his feet (their adoration seems more valuable to the big-hearted, lunkheaded Willy than a fat commission). He's a great and terrible huckster, beaming as he sells himself to his kids, filling the innocents with phantom tales of his mercantile prowess and of the wonderful lives that await them.
What awaits them, of course--since Willy gives them no lessons about the value of hard work despite (or possibly because of?) his own dog's-life existence--is short-term happiness (in the case of the womanizing Happy) and long-term confusion (for Biff).
Two things drive the play: Willy's dire economic straits and his strained relationship with Biff. Miller tries to make a symbol of poor, exploited Willy as the little guy left behind by the American dream, and set designer James Kronzer gives a nod in that direction by having the Brooklyn Bridge loom over the back of the set as an icon of towering achievement and oppressive overdevelopment.
But the Willy-Biff conflict is the more tantalizing line in director Jim Petosa's production. As Biff, Christopher Lane is so bottled up, so consumed by his knowledge that his father is a "fake" (as he cryptically tells his mother) that you eagerly wait for the time he and Willy face off.
I can't say that their famous final reckoning isn't moving at Olney; the sniffles were audible here and there in the house. But the show doesn't quite knock you out, because Burns's theatrical Willy and Lane's stiff, muted Biff are a degree too performed.
Are these characters essentially poetic, or prosaic? Miller famously tries to have it both ways, which means it's a fine line for actors to walk. When this production errs its little bit, it's on the poetic side; as played, the key figures are not quite plain enough to connect on a gut level.
It's a dilemma that runs throughout the play. One moment Anne Stone's Linda is sitting in the kitchen explaining her beleaguered husband to her sons, and the scene sounds as honest and on the mark as any ever written. The next moment you can hear Miller straining to make his hero "lofty" as Linda's maternal reproof starts sounding like a dramaturgical speech.
And yet it is a great play, if only because it grapples so reverently (not for nothing is the final scene titled "Requiem") with a failed, quintessentially American life. Petosa gets a lot of solid, straightforward performances from his supporting actors (notably Daryl M. Lozupone as Charley's bright son Bernard, James Slaughter as Willy's elegant dead rich Uncle Ben, Deborah Hazlett as Willy's lover in Boston), and Christopher Michael Bauer is pitch-perfect as the earnest, ever-puzzled Happy.
Petosa and company don't entirely capture the electric current of dread and sadness that has made "Death of a Salesman" a staple of the repertoire for 50 years, but they don't miss harnessing that power by much.
Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller. Directed by Jim Petosa. Lights, Tom Sturge; costumes, Rosemary Pardee. With Neal Moran, Eric Bloom, Kosha Engler, Michole Biancosino, Lonnie Burr and Christina Anderson. At the Olney Theatre Center for the Arts through Nov. 7. Call 301-924-3400.
CAPTION: Biff (Christopher Lane) tangles with his father (Traber Burns) in "Death of a Salesman."
CAPTION: Traber Burns as quintessential glad-hander Willy Loman in the Olney Theatre Center's "Death of a Salesman."