On a November night, 22 years ago, fresh off a plane from New York, I walked into the Goodman Theater in Chicago and straight into the depths of depression. I felt privileged to be there. Because my guide that evening into the state of paralyzing unhappiness was Brian Dennehy, who was making one man’s inner darkness uncannily visible as the title character of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.”
I had admired Mr. Dennehy — who died on Wednesday, at 81 — as a smart, risk-taking and undersung actor onstage and onscreen. He was a heartbreakingly sensitive lout as the parvenu Lopakhin — a brute with a touch of the poet — in Peter Brook’s production of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” (1988) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. His performance as the serial murderer John Wayne Gacy in the 1992 television film “To Catch a Killer” was a penetratingly human portrait of a monster, and it haunted my nightmares for a long time.
But nothing I had seen Mr. Dennehy do before prepared me for his take on Willy Loman in Robert Falls’s shadow-shrouded “Salesman,” Miller’s benchmark drama from 1949. The scale of his performance was more genuinely tragic than any version of Willy I’ve seen before or since. Mr. Dennehy had a large and brawny frame that loomed intimidatingly from a stage. Yet the character he was portraying thought of himself as a little man — so insignificant that he was afraid he was on the verge of disappearing altogether.
The disparity between Mr. Dennehy’s physical stature and his character’s sense of smallness generated extraordinary pathos. It was as if he had been made outsized by pain. And there was a visceral intensity to the way he moved, always grabbing at his body and face, as if he wanted to tear off his skin.
Paradoxically, this intensely physical performance conveyed the interior of Willy’s mind with a sharpness that stung. One of Miller’s early titles for “Salesman” had been “Inside His Head,” and that was precisely the location of Mr. Falls’s production.
The world this Willy inhabited was the life-sapping landscape of depression. Mr. Dennehy defined this realm as a place that was both claustrophobic and all too easy to be lost in forever. When the other characters — embodied by an excellent supporting cast that included Elizabeth Franz as Willy’s wife, Linda — reached out to him, you knew that he was beyond their touch.
And you felt in your gut that the death of the title was a foregone conclusion, that Willy would never be able to find his way out of his unfathomable sadness. And yet I stayed with every second of that performance — first in Chicago, and then again when the production transferred to Broadway the next year, when Mr. Dennehy won a Tony Award for best actor.
He received his second Tony four years later, as the miserly, combative father in Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” also directed by Mr. Falls. Though his character, James Tyrone, was a retired matinee idol, Mr. Dennehy refrained from the easy temptation of playing the ham.
This production gave center stage to Mary, James’s morphine-addled wife, who was played by Vanessa Redgrave, in a wrenching performance that had something of the externalized inner anguish that illuminated Mr. Dennehy’s Willy. There was an almost self-effacing gallantry about his James, as if his primary raison d’être had become shoring up a woman on the edge of dissolution. At the same time, he registered the enduring, impossibly tested love of a man for his wife, and the wounds with which she had left him. It was as if he were always trying to rein in his instinctive urge to lash out at her.
I am deeply sorry not to have caught Mr. Dennehy in the two productions of O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” in which he appeared, first (in 1990) as the slick-talking, pipe-dream-selling salesman Hickey; and later as the sozzled, grizzled, self-destroying Larry, opposite Nathan Lane in 2015.
I am therefore doubly grateful to have seen his Willy Loman, not once but four times. There was no masochism in my returning to that production. The agony that Mr. Dennehy exuded should have been unbearable. But when darkness is rendered with such glowing detail by an actor of such strength, it becomes a triumph over the night.