Arts & Entertainment
Review: 'Death of a Salesman'
From Issue: Volume XXI - Number 19
By Ben Miles
Written by American dramatist Arthur Miller in 1949, “Death of a Salesman” went on to win that year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as well as a Tony Award for Best Play. What’s more, this play became the quintessential example of “Tragedy and the Common Man,” as Miller himself termed it in his New York Times essay on February 27, 1949.
The role of the protagonist, Willy Loman, is considered by many an acting aficionado to be as challenging as any of Shakespeare’s towering figures of tragedy – including, Lear, Othello and Macbeth.
Indeed, many great actors have clamored for the part. Among those who have had the privilege playing the doomed salesman are Lee J. Cobb (who originated the character on Broadway), George C. Scott, Dustin Hoffman and, more recently, Brain Dennehy (who won the 1999 Tony Award for his performance) and Philip Seymour Hoffman in 2012.
In an innovative cultural and ethnic shift, South Coast Repertory under Mark Masterson’s visionary direction has cast an African-American ensemble to portray the Loman Family. And it is a brilliant artistic touch that adds an intriguingly subtle subtext while also maintaining the universality of Miller’s existential themes.
In terms of Miller’s dialogue, conflict and setting, Masterson has changed nothing. Willy Loman (exquisitely portrayed with tired desperation by Charlie Robinson), is the 63-year-old salesman who has outlived his ability to be effective in peddling his wares in the New England region that has for decades been his designated territory.
Willy is married to Linda (Kim Staunton in an emotionally riveting characterization). Willy and Linda have two grown sons, Biff and Hap (played to powerful effect by Larry Bates and Chris Butler, respectively), who are again staying in the Brooklyn abode, which the Loman family has resided in since 34 year-old Biff was 9. But now, Willy appears to live in a world of stark denial and self-delusion.
While Biff, an erstwhile high school star athlete, is in a mode of soul-searching and facing up to the reality of his circumstance, younger brother Hap is busy womanizing and avoiding many manly responsibilities. In a crucial scene where the brothers are together in their childhood bedroom sharing dreams and disappointments, not only do we receive essential exposition, we also experience Miller’s flawless skill in moving the action along while building empathy and understanding for the characters on display.
On a sprawling set, designed in tiered sections by Michael B. Raiford, and with period- evoking post-war costuming by Holly Poe Durbin, Brian J. Lilienthal’s lighting becomes an essential element of this production. Jim Ragland’s original compositions and soundscape add mood and nuance to the proceedings.
What’s more, this “Death of a Salesman” is populated with a multicultural troupe of actors that is entirely believable and abundantly charismatic. In addition to the performers previously mentioned there is Tobie Windham as Bernard, Tracy Leigh as The Woman, James A. Watson, Jr. as Charley, Gregg Daniel as Uncle Ben, Tyler Pierce as Howard, Georgina E. Okon as Jenny, Christopher Rivas as Stanley, Celeste Den as Miss Forsythe, and Becca Lustgarten as Letta. All are consummate in their various roles.
“Death of a Salesman” is an emotionally exhausting play at over two and-a-half-hours running time. It is alternately touching and tedious. Nevertheless, this theatrical monument questions the truth and true consequences of chasing the so-called American Dream; it is a timely examination of the queries and quandaries that still infect our country and its purported values.
“Death of a Salesman” continues at South Coast Repertory through September 29. SCR is located at 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Evening performances are Sundays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. (no evening performance on September 29). Thursday through Saturday evening show times are at 8 p.m.
Matinees are Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. For reservations, call (714) 708-5555. For online ticketing and further information, visit www.scr.org.