Such moments are part of an inspired, continuing pattern in this production, wherein ugly truths flare up only to be extinguished. The same rhythms animate Pierce’s performance. Willy explodes without warning when his next-door neighbor, Charley (Trevor Cooper), asks him, “When you are you going to grow up, boy?” (That “boy” is one of the few interpolations in the script.)
Or watch how Willy’s fedora morphs from a boulevardier’s proudly brandished accessory to something like a humbly proffered beggar’s hat. That’s in the heartbreaking scene when Willy, begging his young boss (Matthew Seadon-Young) not to fire him, softly grabs the shoulder of the other man, who recoils as if he had been stung.
Such moments are never lingered over. And if this “Salesman” had been retooled to be solely about race, it would shrink and oversimplify Miller’s play. Instead, race expands and exacerbates Willy’s suppressed fears that the world regards him as outcast, a loser, a clown.
The tightly wired intensity of Pierce’s performance lends a new ferocity to the dysfunction of the Loman family dynamic. The scenes between Willy and Biff (whom Dirisu endows with full Method angst) have the wrenching, visceral charge of full Oedipal tragedy. And the magnificent Clarke (who arrives on Broadway later this season in the title role of “Caroline, or Change”) transforms a character often portrayed as a whimpering doormat into a strong, self-aware woman who knows the choices she has made and is determined to honor them.
But there’s not a performance here that doesn’t serve the production’s governing vision of Willy’s sense of life as he most longs — and fears — it to be. Even the usually throwaway part of a woman with whom Willy has a one-night stand assumes a magnified, haunting menace as embodied by Victoria Hamilton-Barritt.
The life summoned here is a rapidly tarnishing illusion, built on crumbling values that Willy has fought against himself to believe in. That little house in Brooklyn, which he has worked so hard to maintain and pay off, is rendered in Anna Fleischle’s set (lighted by Aideen Malone) with ephemeral-looking furniture, doors and windows all suspended on wires. Everything can disappear in a twinkling.
When a singer in a restaurant scene is heard crooning, “They can’t take that away from that me,” those hopeful, wistful lyrics sound unbearably cruel. In this “Salesman,” when Willy, in a rare moment of insight, says he feels “kind of temporary,” the terror that he ultimately owns nothing — not even his own identity — has never felt so profound.
Death of a Salesman
Through Saturday at the Piccadilly Theater, London; thepiccadillytheatre.com. Running time: 3 hours 15 minutes.