Death of a Salesman production energizes the dystopian classic

You shouldn't go to see Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" simply because it's an "American classic." You shouldn't go to see it to fulfill some arbitrary cultural prerequisite, and you most certainly shouldn't see it because academics and critics have deemed it important.

To see this play for these reasons could turn an already fraught emotional experience into a crisis of brooding introspection, and the production of "DOAS" currently running at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center is acutely aware of this.

But you must go to see it.

The play deals with the disintegration of identity and questions the meaning and validity of such concepts as hope and redemption. It painfully illustrates the relentless barrage of expectations, assumptions and fixed definitions of success and failure that corral the possibilities of the American Dream, and this production stretches these themes so taut that they practically snap out of the actors' mouths to slap the audience in the face.

Director Jacqueline Moscou's take on "DOAS" is as unique as it is refined, subtle, and focused. Instead of presenting the downward spiral of the Loman family in its traditional context, she concerns herself with illustrating both the timelessness and universality of Miller's dystopian vision. Her cast is entirely African-American, a choice that works incredibly well in showing the breadth of the play's resonance.

Miller's script is left unaltered, and issues of segregation and other social injustices faced by black Americans in the 1940s are never addressed as such. What is significant to Moscou is not the ethnicity of her cast, but rather the ability of the play to "resonate through any ethnic group."

With this small but profound cultural alteration, she succeeds in broadening the definition of the term "classic." We're not talking about the word in an elitist, academic sense here, but instead approaching the concept on a much deeper, far more human level. The actors own the material completely and honestly, and the outstanding truthfulness of their interpretation leaves the door wide open for conversation about where the meaning of a work of art changes and where it remains the same when it crosses perceived social boundaries.

It's a complicated and tricky debate that will never end with a tidy resolution. This is the nature of the play, and another reason why it lends itself so well to this type of reinterpretation.

While it took the actors the majority of the first act to really get into the swing of things, the sheer power of the second act more than made up for the shaky start. The whole cast is solid, but the emotional core of the play is brought devastatingly to life by the exceptional performances of William Hall Jr. and Justin Emeka as Willy and Biff Loman, respectively.

The portrayal of this father/son relationship is crucial to any presentation of "DOAS" and these two characters are more vivid, nuanced, and explosive in the Langston Hughes' production than in most others I've seen.

Hall Jr. brings a restrained, tortured desperation to Willy's decline that's seldom equaled, but it's Emeka's Biff who steals the show in the second act. Biff's struggle to overcome his father's ingrained, delusional expectations and come to terms with his own dishonesty digs to the root of the American struggle for identity. Emeka plays him with a perfect combination of idealistic, youthful confusion and brutal, mature self-awareness. The chemistry between these two actors is dead-on, their confrontations as heart-rending as they are electric.

Judy Young deftly fills the role of the mother, Linda, coming completely into her own during the full-scale family meltdown of the second act. Jonte Ausler does more with Biff's brother, Happy, than most. His Happy is actually cool and suave; his amicable, cocksure platitudes and utter surrender to his own sense of denial have a depth that is often lost by other actors behind a veil of goofy overacting.

There is nothing clean and easy about either "DOAS" or Moscou's subtle reinterpretation, and the cast's faithful observance of the material's complexity makes this production as inspiring as it is heartbreaking. It is not to be missed.

"Death of a Salesman" runs through Nov. 6 at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center, 104 17th Ave. S. $18 adults, $10 youth and seniors. 684-4758 or

Sean Molnar may be reached via

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