Sunday, April 26, 2015

"Death of a Salesman"

Death of a Salesman
Arthur Miller

Willie Loman.  Just the name conjures up many notions and images of past, great performances of what many believe is one of the greatest American dramas of the twentieth century.  How can yet one more production by a local company hope to compete with the giants of Broadway, TV, and film who have played this beaten-down salesman who believes until the end in the great American Dream?  San Jose’s The Stage provides the answer in its astoundingly powerful opening as we see trudging across a nighttime stage a slumping, slow-stepping man with long wrinkled coat, low-hung hat, and battered suitcases.  He battles silently his way with long shadows to an imaginary screen door.  He pauses for what seems like an eternity, clearly dreading entering what seems to be his suburban home (defined effectively by light, projections, and sparse properties).  We see a woman rising out of bed who seems to sense his return and looks worried, even scared.  All this occurs before we hear the first word; and already we know this production of Death of a Salesman is going to be emotional, powerful, and well-worth the next three-hour sojourn.

This is a story well-known by even the most casual of theatre-goers or students of American literature.  The forty-eight hours we witness are the climax of a lifetime of hopes built on family-shared fantasies; genuine hero-worship of parent, spouse and son; and belief that ‘who you know’ will always win out over ‘what you know.’  Ultimately, the glad-handing, braggadocio, ‘I cannot help but someday succeed’ frame of Willie’s dreams for himself and particularly for his favored son Biff come crashing down in avalanche proportions.  Mr. Miller, as we know, is shattering the widely touted belief of the late 1940s that anyone can make it in America if only enough hard work and belief in the justice of the system is applied.  Willie has clearly worked himself almost to the grave.  The furrows in Randall King’s face, the pain he shows in every step of Willie’s tired journey, and the gravel though which his voice emerges tell us this is a man who has given his all for a career as a traveling salesman in a company that will now turn its back on him.  We watch as he finally confronts the truth of so many lies he and his family have used in the past ‘just to get by’ and even at times to thrive.  Those lies come crashing down so quickly, so convincingly in this excellent rendition of Miller’s American classic.

Every member of this cast has been well-selected and expertly directed, from Randall King as Willie to the most minor of characters.  Lucinda Hitchcock Cone as the weary, loving wife and mother Linda commands huge stage presence just by her worried looks, her heartfelt touches, and certainly by her arresting diatribes against her two errant sons.  It is easy to believe that favorite son Biff in Danny Jones’ body was in fact in his teenage a jock and good ol’ buddy to; and it is also achingly easy to feel his young-adult desperation as he both tries to meet his father’s fanaticized image of him and to seek acknowledgment of who he really is at core.  The smaller, dandier son Happy comes alive with total believability in the hands of Jeffrey Brian Adams.  He is the jocular, conniving ladies man who loves his family, who strives to be noticed by parents who mostly opine about his brother, and who is so full of hot air that we expect him to float away at any minute.  Each supporting cast member also brings exactly the right tenor and poise as they all in their own ways strive to bring reality into this house of dreams without frame or foundation that Willie has built.  But the real kudos still must return to Randall King.  He is Willie.  Willie is this play’s Everyman.  He is the quintessential American salesman who every quarter knows beyond doubt that this time sales records will be broken, who spends more than is in his bank because outlooks are so sure for a banner year, and who is convinced that the loyalty of customers and colleagues through so many years of handshakes and cups of coffee will bring their just rewards.  Randall King shines as this Everyman.

Finally, the icing on the cake of this fine production goes to the Director Kenneth Kelleher and his supporting cast of designers.  Once the lights come up on Willie at the screen door, our attention is kept rapt for three hours.  The action on the concrete floor before us is kept close to the three- sided audience.  Lighting by Maurice Vercoutere quickly defines rooms, doors, pathways, and moods.  Creative use of broken pieces of a projected puzzle along with iconic symbols of a traveling salesman (like the front grill of his old car hung high above his bedroom) are used by Scenic Designer Giulio Cesare Perrone to set us in the proper time, place and 1940/50s atmosphere.  An ongoing soft soundtrack of period music is hardly noticeable and yet is powerful in its effect (Cliff Caruthers as Sound Designer and Composer).

The power of Mr. Kelleher’s production in toto is proven by an audience who leaves in hushed tones.  We all know that we have yet again witnessed a great American tragedy that still speaks today as loud, if not more loud than it did 55+ years ago.  The gaps between the worker and the power elite, the promised retirement package that fails to materialize, and the disillusionment that in fact anyone can climb that ladder to corporate fortune are still themes of daily lives and news analyses.  Willie Loman is still alive, is still struggling, and is everywhere among us.

Rating: 5 E

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