Port Tobacco Players Death of a SalesmanBy Lisa Kay Morton • Oct 1st, 2007 • Category: Reviews, Stand Out!
Listen to Lisa Kay Morton discuss Port Tobacco Players’ production of Death of a Salesman [MP3 5:12 2.4MB].
It may be that Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is the greatest American drama ever written. That view is commonly held, anyway, and regardless of which superlatives one chooses to attach to it, it is beyond question a complicated, difficult piece, and any theater attempting it has its work cut out for it. People have written doctoral theses on this play; it is easy to question whether any community theater could pull it off — But the Port Tobacco Players production succeeds admirably.
It is set in the year it was written, 1949, when the modern “American dream” was just being shaped and some people were realizing they’d been cheated out of it. Willy Loman is one of those men. A traveling salesman for 36 years, he has lost his touch and lost the respect of his employers and his sons. His behavior is increasingly erratic as he contemplates the merits of suicide and the death benefits of a life insurance policy to better provide for his family. “After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.”
First time director Darren Longley may have just presented his first production but it has been more than a short-term effort. A gifted actor and writer, Longley has meticulously directed the piece in his head for 20 years. His minimal black box set, brilliant lighting design (Lighting Designer-WATCH award winner, Leslie Wanko) showcase brilliant crisp blocking and stage pictures and a pace that pulls the audience seamlessly from one tableau to the next. Longley deconstructs the American myth of success powerfully and simply. The audience was riveted. I cannot remember a show in years where the audience was so spellbound- riveted to the drama on stage.
Willy Loman, the titular salesman and the American equivalent of Hamlet in terms of complexity is an absolutely stellar accomplishment for mercurial actor, Bob White. Willy has a salesman’s quick, eager smile and expansiveness, yet he is never far from the rage and bewilderment that keep him shambling between the dismal present and the hallucinatory past. Even White’s sheer size works for him; when he sags, his massive body seems to implode. It is also jarring, and utterly appropriate; to see such a large man physically pushed around by the other, smaller men in the play. And I will always be haunted by the image of Willy’s infantile fragility when he shields his face with his hands, palms outward, before an angry, confrontational Biff. Veteran actor White takes the cast and audience alike through an emotional vortex with no respite until the dismal conclusion.
Linda Loman knows that “a small man can be just as exhausted as a great man” and actress Kim Bessler‘s emotionally charged performance catches every glint of Linda Loman’s love for her husband and fierce anger at her sons, Biff and Happy, over their casually thoughtless treatment of Willy in an authentic and riveting performance. Her chemistry with the other performers is considerable and her range never less than impressive.
The Loman sons invest admirably in their roles. Alexander Deleon as former football hero Biff is not a good physical cast but rides the emotional aspects of the role capably and pulls out a roaring burst of energy at the end of the show. The final showdown between Biff and Willy, in which rage is somehow transmuted into groping love, is beautifully handled by both actors. The over-eager Happy (Sean Hare) is desperate for scraps of attention and projects all the longing of the second son desperate for his father’s approval.
Miller, unlike most other playwrights, has the gift of creating small roles that allow good actors to score indelible impressions with a few scant moments of stage time. The supporting performers in this production seize the opportunity. Lynne Bouchard as ‘The Woman’ with her haunting backstage laugh almost makes Willie’s cruel betrayal of Linda perfectly understandable. David Standish as earnest, goal-centered Bernard admirably balanced the complexity of a tattle-tale with good intentions into a sympathetic character. Also notable was John Scheer as the mystical Uncle Ben, the debonair success-image of Willy’s hallucinations, and Dan Stacier as Willy’s gruff, argumentative and ultimately beneficent next-door neighbor Charley. Stacier gave a very genuine, authentic performance as did Steve Claggett‘s practical portrayal of the business-minded Howard.
“Willie Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.” Linda Loman, Act 1
Attention must be paid. This is, quite simply, a wonderful production of a great American classic. Gives this performance the attention it deserves.
Performances continue through October 14th at Port Tobacco Playhouse in LaPlata, MD. Ticket information is available at www.ptplayers.com.
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