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God created time, an old adage holds, to keep everything from happening at once. If so, then Willy Loman is running out of time. Events from now and yesterday inundate him, often with competing claims.

Born between 1886 and 1889, Willy rode the Midwest in a wagon with his full-bearded, “wild-hearted” father. “Self-reliance,” Willy boasts, ran deep in his family. If schools gave aptitude tests in those days, Willy would have scored aces in carpentry. But somewhere at the end of the Gilded Age, he became convinced that greatness came not from strong hands but a winning personality. You could say he became “other-reliant” and lived for approval from outside. “The wonder of this country,” he’s convinced, “is that a man can end with diamonds here on the basis of being liked.”

At one point in The Death of a Salesman, Willy looks down on construction workers. But his biggest successes have been the improvements he made to his house — like that new ceiling in the living room. His wife Linda admits that Willy put more heart into a fix-up project than all the sales he ever made.

Most playwrights would have been satisfied with this tidy opposition: born to build with his hands, Willy Loman became a salesman, choosing surface over substance. But few American playwrights have explored the consequences more than Arthur Miller. The various sides of Willy’s character plead their cases like a court of law. All are so eloquent that the “truth” won’t stand still.

As Willy comes apart, it becomes harder to pin him down. How old is he? First he’s 60, then 63. How long has he been with the company? 36 years, then 34. How successful was he? Tough question, given the glaze of hype he glosses over his skills. What does he sell? Miller stays mute about a product, since Willy sells himself.

In theatrical terms, Willy miscast himself in a role, for decades, he can no longer play. He put such effort into being a salesman — maintaining chipper appearances, glad-handing customers, always “up” — the role took over his life. Now, he fights with all his fiber to maintain the guise against “strange thoughts.” But the greasepaint’s streaking. The play reveals that Willy’s was not just an act, but one he forced on his sons.

Two words weave through Salesman like leitmotifs: “greatness” and “lonely.” Willy has a morbid fear of mediocrity, of being “a dime a dozen.” He has to be great (his finest sales-pitch: selling this goal to himself). He orders Biff never to settle for less (Linda provides a counterpoint: “Why must everybody conquer the world?”). But his idea of greatness is built on role-playing for an audience. When off-stage and alone, he becomes so “lonely” he almost doesn’t exist.

Jeffrey DeMunn’s opening-night performance as Willy, in the Old Globe’s production of Salesman, had the general portrait sketched in but played hit-and-miss with details. His now-on/now-off deliveries moved single-file emotionally — now crusty, now blaring, now hopeful, now threatened — and rarely reflected the fickle interchanges of emotional weather rolling through Willy’s mind. This may be directorial, but DeMunn threw away one of Willy’s signature lines: “I still feel — kind of temporary about myself.” Equally surprising, when told to turn in his sample cases — the death knell for a salesman — DeMunn made a bland, unfocused reaction.

Lucas Caleb Rooney played Biff — Willy’s profoundly disillusioned, kleptomaniac son — along similar, straightforward lines. Like DeMunn, he had arresting moments but overall could have made more nuanced choices for a character wracked by as many maelstroms as Willy. Robin Moseley’s moving portrayal of Linda Loman dipped between the lines: a nonstop support system (often “mothering” Willy), but on occasion she let the strain of constant enabling seep through. Tyler Pierce’s Happy — the youngest son almost abandoned at birth — is rightfully slick and superficial but could react more when no one hears a word he says.

Miller wrote Salesman for a proscenium stage. As in Tennessee Williams’s Glass Menagerie, Miller wanted claustrophobic structures looming over the Lomans’ house. Marion Williams’s useful, split-level set — hardwood floors and spare furnishings — doesn’t account for the outside world. But director Pam MacKinnon’s actors do. Most are taller than Willy: John Procaccino’s droll, laizzez-faire Charley; Ben Diskant’s nerdy Bernard, who grows from ugly duckling to stalwart legal swan; Adrian Sparks’s rich, sonorous Uncle Ben (whom Mathew J. LeFebvre dresses in pure, pleated white, as if Ben owned the world’s largest plantation); and even Jordan Baker’s giddy Woman hovers over the hyper/lonely man from Brooklyn.

The strong supporting cast makes this Salesman more of an ensemble production than most. They illuminate aspects usually relegated to the background. And such an amazing play! Willy’s dilemma recalls another adage about time: a person with one watch always knows what time it is; a person with two is never quite sure. ■

The Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller
Old Globe Theatre, Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, Balboa Park
Directed by Pam MacKinnon; cast: Jeffrey DeMunn, Jordan Baker, Ben Diskant, Robin Moseley, Jesse Jensen, Tyler Pierce, John Procaccino, Deborah Radloff, Lucas Caleb Rooney, Ryman Sneed, Adrian Sparks, Jonathan Spivey; scenic design, Marion Williams; costumes, Mathew J. LeFebvre; lighting, Rui Rita; sound, Jeremy J. Lee
Playing through February 27: Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:00, Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-234-5623

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