Craig Wallace prowls the Ford's Theatre stage as a haunted man, talking to ghosts, mourning his cheerful past and dreading his mortal future. It looks familiar, but now Wallace isn't playing Scrooge in the company's annual "Christmas Carol." This burden is heavier, which is clear from the moment he enters wearily with his bulky suitcases and almost immediately seems lost in his own house. He's Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman."
The show that director Stephen Rayne has fashioned is big and faithful, unfolding in the maze of Willy's head on a set dominated by floating windows and hard brick walls. The midcentury cityscape is penning Willy in, and you can feel how close this fretful, broke old man is to getting sucked into one of the empty black pockets looming in Tim Mackabee's design.
The acting has a grim epic scale, too. It's a serious performance, full of furrowed brows and impassioned arguments as Willy blusters about being "well liked," wife Linda soothes his rants, unemployed son Biff chafes at his dotard dad and the womanizing youngest son, Happy, pretends he's happy. Sure, you've read "Salesman," but if you've never seen it, Rayne's staging feels textbook.
The substantial wrinkle is the question posed by casting an African American in the lead role. Do the systemic capitalist pressures that Arthur Miller dramatized operate differently on this Willy Loman? Rayne's production does not italicize the issue, but the show is not indifferent, either. Audiences seeing this play now in Washington will be attuned to fissures delineating race, and pick up on how this particular world is arrayed.
"Other men, I don't know — they do it easier," Willy confides to Linda. It's almost impossible not to fill in the blank.
The sales firm where Willy is failing is run by a black man, Howard (a confident, nattily attired KenYatta Rogers — the neatly tailored costumes are by Wade Laboissonniere), whose dad hired Willy back in the day. When the unreliable Willy loses his temper pleading to be kept on, Howard finally snaps, "I don't want you representing us." You always wonder about Willy's perverse pride, trying to cling to this old salesman's job when his carefree neighbor, Charley, offers him work. Here, you wonder whether Willy is craving greater loyalty from his black-run firm, and whether he's resisting working for his neighbor (a jaunty, joshing Michael Russotto) because Charley is white.
The hotter sparks fly in the household, though, which never seems more familial than when Schraf's Linda dresses down her two grown boys. Linda cuts through the male noise and stuns her sons by revealing Willy's suicidal tendencies, and Schraf's biting lucidity gives the evening one of its rare lump-in-the-throat moments.
As Biff and Happy, Thomas Keegan and Danny Gavigan are lanky, handsome and combustible, especially Keegan's brooding Biff. Keegan is as quick triggered as Wallace when it comes to the father-son fights; Rayne is keen to keep a flame under this family's simmering panic and sudden flaring squabbles. Wallace and Schraf — partners in real life — share some lovely, unguarded moments that draw you into the Lomans' struggles, but they are also unflinchingly brusque with the family's uglier moments.
Wallace has the kind of gravitas you expect as this complex, flailing icon. His stride can be as powerful as his voice, but he also freezes in place a number of times, as if physically paralyzed by regret and financial pressure. In Wallace's interpretation, you see how starved Willy is for any scrap of the economic success that's easy to talk about but somehow impossible to grasp. Yes, this abrasive man is annoyingly self-deceiving, yet Wallace allows you feel for him as Willy keeps coming up empty.
The rub is that both Willy and this respectful production reliably blow up on schedule. There are no real missteps, but there are few surprises (though the family's funny twist on the phrase "well-liked" is one). Its earnestness and insistence become liabilities. Emotionally, it's almost all as expected.
That predictability did not mar Ford's freshly acidic "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" earlier this year (with a good "Glass Menagerie" also under its belt, Ford's has been on a mostly fruitful jag of American classics). But then Edward Albee's similarly iconic and self-destructive household, with its cruelly inventive party games, is perpetually strange. Miller's "Salesman," with its business-is-business melodrama and its on-the-nose household bickering, can be grindingly familiar. If Miller's tragedy remains a durable prick to the national conscience and a cry from the heart, it needs more than sustained high passion to pry open its deepest powers.
Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller. Directed by Stephen Rayne. Lights, Pat Collins; sound design and original music, John Gromada. With Brandon McCoy, Jennifer Gerdts, Frederick Strother, Aakhu TuahNera Freeman, Joe Mallon, Kathryn Tkel, Lynette Rathnam and Nora Achrati. About three hours. Through Oct. 22 at Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. Tickets $17-$64. Call 202-347-4833 or visit fords.org.