TV's stunning `Death of a Salesman'

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A television critic has got to dream . . . it comes with the territory. Just as it does, according to Arthur Miller, for a salesman. Death of a Salesman (CBS, Sunday, 8-11 p.m.) is a TV critic's dream -- meaningful drama performed with an integrity close to genius. It's seldom that such inspired programming comes to commercial television at all, especially at the start of a new season. One hopes this airing so early in the year is an omen of fine things to come. At a ny rate, ``Death of a Salesman'' is a glorious beginning. A warning, though: It is a depressingly glorious beginning. Arthur Miller's classic tragedy concerns Willy Loman, a man who dreamed the wrong dreams as he tried to get by on a smile and a shoeshine, combined with a lot of fantasy. Just as the mortgage on the house in Brooklyn is paid and the Lomans would seem to be ``free and clear'' of debts, Willy starts to lose everything . . . his job, his mind, his relationships with everybody but his loyal wife.

``Death of a Salesman'' is not merely an epitaph for a little man; it is an epitaph for a way of life. Some viewers may find it unbearably sad, because it may also be an epitaph for the life of somebody dear to them . . . or perhaps even themselves.

Volker Schl"ondorff directed this Pulitzer Prize-winning play, based upon a recent Broadway revival of the play which was first produced on Broadway in 1949 when, perhaps, the sales metaphor was more relevant than it is today. Miller included in his story most of the traditional devices of the theater of the '40s: poetic flashbacks, Freudianesque oversimplifications, melodramatic revelations. But the major dramatic moments still retain shocking impact, in performance as well as in the writing.

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Perhaps my perception of the acting in this production is influenced by the fact that the original production with Lee J. Cobb and Mildred Dunnock was my most emotional experience in the theater till that point. In this production Dustin Hoffman is superb in the role of Willy; but I found I had to adjust myself to the fact that Hoffman is playing Willy Loman, a 63-year-old, as if he were 80 years old . . . a bit more Little Big Man than Willy.

Kate Reid, as Linda Loman, plays the wife as an ``earth mother'' strong woman rather than the weak and vulnerable woman strengthened by the situation in which she found herself. The sons never seem either old enough or young enough for the scenes they are called upon to play. But perhaps I am quibbling, because all of the actors present viewers with their own valid interpretations of their roles. Within the framework of this 1985 production, the ensemble performance is nothing short of astounding, fille d with shocking moments of recognition.

The play is a multi-leveled work which offers special revelations to each generation. So, it is unfair to fault Hoffman's interpretation since it is uniquely his own.

But, be assured, it is an interpretation which will not soon be forgotten.

``Death of a Salesman'' is a painful three-hour investigation of what was once a 1940s version of the American dream. The agony of Willy Loman still remains a part of our society, and the play's major strength today may be in forcing us to measure its contemporary relevance.

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