"Death of a Salesman"

Olney Theatre Center Through Nov. 7

Tickets: 301/924-3400

It was last spring when director Jim Petosa came up with the design concept for his production of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman." The Olney Theatre Center's theater lab was being built, "and I was looking at the walls when they were just a stud-wall construction," says Petosa. "And I thought, `There's something really beautiful about that.'"

Keep that spareness in mind, and the idea that Miller's classic is a play that pierces the walls and enters the private lives of its characters in a most intimate way. Add to it the image of the Brooklyn Bridge, similar in its use of soaring vertical lines, and all the industrial and automobile imagery it implies. Petosa was also thinking of the linear but graceful ribs of a pipe organ. This all went into the concept behind the play's set, brought to life in collaboration with designer Jim Kronzer.

Worn-down idealist Willy Loman has a humble urban abode -- the New York home to which he returns time and again after selling his wares, and his soul, on the road. In the Olney production, the bedroom he shares with his wife, his sons' bedroom and the family's kitchen are separated only by tall, evenly spaced two-by-fours, lending an intentional transparency to the boundaries. The world that comes crumbling down around Loman and his family is thereby given even more fragility.

"We basically cut off the tops of the two-by-fours and let them spiral into the sky," says Kronzer. Kronzer also studied photos of the Brooklyn Bridge, which inspired the shape of the set's rear wall. "There's a Gothic arch in the bridge, bringing in a whole religious overtone to the architecture of the bridge itself, which feeds into the organ idea," he says.

All of which helps to create a unique look for this play, so iconic in American theater. Approaching a much-seen legend like "Salesman" is no easy task, Petosa acknowledges.

"It's like doing `Hamlet,'" he says. "The first thing you have to do is forget that it's `Hamlet.' You have to throw the demons away. And then you discover that this play really is inexhaustible. It defies definition, enabling you to make discovery after discovery."