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Free Willy 

Shakespeare Festival gets inside Salesman's head

Death of a Salesman itself requires some canny salesmanship. The Arthur Miller play lives up to its reputation as an essential critique of the American dream and a cornerstone of 20th century drama, but it hasn't aged with grace.

Some of the dialogue creaks, as when we're told that a salesman is "a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine." Modern audiences can feel ahead of the play while watching it, and not just because the title gives away the ending. We get almost all we need to know of Willy Loman from the iconography of his entrance, lugging his sample cases like they bear the weight of the world. That, and his name "low man."

Selecting the play as its first-ever American classic, the Georgia Shakespeare Festival offers a close, insightful reading of the work. Director Vincent Murphy and the cast find intriguing, easily overlooked details in the text and flesh them out with ideas that mostly pay off, proving that there's still plenty of life in Death of a Salesman.

Miller's words can sound dated, but the structure and emotional shifts of the play's first act are as fresh as ever. Exhausted from a life on the road, Willy (Tim McDonough) returns one evening to interact with his wife (Janice Akers) and grown sons Biff (Daniel May) and Happy (Brad Sherrill). Willy's losing his mental bearings, and he flashes back to highlights of his family's past and interacts with the challenging presence of his rich, deceased brother Ben, whom Chris Kayser plays in an unusual but fittingly sinister fashion.

The second act unfolds almost like the Stations of the Cross, as we follow Willy's wrenching confrontations in New York offices and restaurants. He's cast off by his heartless employer (a well-cast Allen O'Reilly), but is too proud to accept a job offered by his kindly neighbor (Tommy A. Gomez). Tall, hollow-voiced McDonough comes across like the husk of a colossus, giving a sense of Loman as the way he is now, but less sense of the dynamo he used to be (an aspect vividly brought to life by Daniel Burnley in Soul-stice's production last spring).

The engine of Murphy's production is Biff, the disillusioned older son. Remarkably raw and vivid in the role, May gives Biff both the innocent idealism of a boy and the bitter cynicism of a grown man, at times in the same speech.

Miller originally gave the play the title The Inside of His Head, and Leslie Taylor's scenic design conveys Willy's psychic landscape. The stage floor is drawn like the literal, life-sized blueprints of the Loman house, while multiple window frames hang in the background. As the play goes on, the windows get lower while some of the furnishings rise off the ground, suggesting that Willy's mental state is growing increasingly unbalanced.

Some of the self-conscious stylishness doesn't work as well. In their scenes together, Akers and McDonough lapse into non-naturalistic movements -- they circle each other awkwardly, McDonough's arms windmill -- that seem out of place with such famously "ordinary" characters. Akers conveys the sufferings of a dutiful wife and mother, but she is also encumbered by some of the didactic passages: "Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person!"

The energy and creativity of the Georgia Shakespeare Festival help demonstrate Death of a Salesman's continued relevance. Willy's emphasis on being "well-liked" fulfills a quintessential American notion that good attitude can triumph over everything, a trend you can trace from Poor Richard's Almanac to Tony Robbins. If Death of a Salesman had nothing new to say, it would only be liked, not well-liked.

The Georgia Shakespeare Festival presents Death of a Salesman in repertory through Aug. 9 at the Conant Performing Arts Center, Oglethorpe University, 4484 Peachtree Road. $10-$32. Call for times. 404-264-0020.

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