I am sitting in the balcony of the Barrymore Theater on West 47th Street, watching--for the second time--the Mike Nichols revival of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, the agonizing final 24 hours in the life (and hallucinatory memories) of Willy Loman, a traveling salesman living in Brooklyn. Emotionally drained the first time I saw it, I'm back to unravel the mystery of why this play is so devastatingly powerful--so much so, in fact, that a few friends, familiar with it, have adamantly refused to see it even once. At the climax, when Willy's older son, Biff, crying like a baby into his father's lap, begs him to please, finally, wake up to the fact that they are nowhere near special, that they're a "dime a dozen," I struggle to rein in my silent weeping, certain that if I don't, I will collapse into uncontrollable sobbing even louder than Biff's.
What is it about this play that can produce such a reaction when hundreds, no, thousands of other plays and movies--already in the process of being forgotten even as they are being seen--cannot? Why, I wonder, is this particular play so special when, as Biff says, the Lomans so clearly aren't? Was it because it struck so close to home?
So close to home?
Albert Wistow was nothing like Willy Loman.
For much of the play, Willy, lost in his head, relives the past, trying to solve the mystery of how his life has turned out the way it has. In these hallucinatory flashbacks,…