BWW Review: DEATH OF A SALESMAN is Unapologetic and Unafraid at Austin Playhouse
The crux of this show lies in the relationship and interactions between the head of the Loman family, here handled by the ever powerful Marc Pouhé as Willy, and how the other Lomans, a deceptively subdued Carla Nickerson as his wife Linda and their two grown sons, Biff and Happy, tackled by Patrick Gathron and Sean Christopher respectively, manage the treacherous task of appeasing, placating and deescalating Willy throughout the evening.
As the overbearing patriarch Pouhé brings his usual gravitas and strength to the role. You can feel the palpable tension from a family that has become resigned to his insistence that the world is what he wants it to be instead of what it is. At times this makes for an incredibly gripping and riveting display. But the pitfall of Loman is how his strength is often as imaginary as his recollections of past events. We must remember that Biff is distressingly correct when he describes the character of Willy as "a dime a dozen". The undercurrent of Loman's quiet desperation and almost maniacal fear of mediocrity is lost in the tyrannical bluster that would make a terrifyingly potent Big Daddy in a production of Cat on A Hot Tin Roof, but it often comes across as startlingly violent for Willy Loman. The barely contained, seething anger that seems to be the driving force behind this Willy is a departure from the often yearning or even pathetic impetus normally associated with the role. I found myself at several points thinking ruefully that too often performers equate volume with power or strength, and thus I felt moments that were shockingly physical and dangerous may have been better played using a more nuanced approach. This dynamic interpretation also led to Willy's struggle between memory, desire and reality to read more as an actual mental breakdown than as a case study in self-aggrandizing "little man syndrome" which is the unspoken character motivation most typically attempted with the role.
But, then again, this is where the show really makes me appreciate the theater because it forces me to re-examine my preconceived notions and step back to ask myself why my way and my thoughts are any more valid than someone else's interpretation of the work. Indeed, this afforded me the opportunity to see this work and these people in a new light that brought about interesting contemplation. Theater, in a very simplistic nutshell, tends to have two major purposes: to entertain, and to make you think. This production, and these actors, do both in abundance. I caught myself, at several points throughout the evening, marveling at how my view of certain characters was rapidly shifting and adjusting to the stimuli I was being offered. Linda at first seemed to be a rather nondescript, falsified version of the put upon wife.... until she could no longer control the floodgates of her pent up repression and her emotional truth slapped me in the face and showed her previous shallowness was a tragic exercise in restraint. Happy slowly shifts until he goes from a boyish imp in the beginning to a cold-hearted, selfish rogue in the end.... all without Mr. Christopher altering how he plays the character. Truly it is a very interesting phenomenon to experience upon reflection. The way these four actors unwrap the Loman family for us is akin to ripping off a bandage to get the discomfort over with, only to reveal a second bandage underneath that must be even more painstakingly, and more painfully, peeled. It's honestly a bit of a shock that takes a while to digest as an audience member. Just when you think you know who these people are they surprise you by alternately validating, or just as often upsetting, your expectations.
But the most pleasant surprise for me was Patrick Gathron as Biff. Mr. Gathron managed to take a character I was never particularly fond of and make him the conflicted, tense, raw emotional center of the show. His Biff is simultaneously drowning in his love for his family and epically frustrated by trying to communicate with them. He has made the strong decision to show a pleasant, almost affectionate friendship with his nebbish friend Bernard when that aspect of the character is often ignored, played as simplistic toleration or as Biff merely basking in Bernard's idol worship. His defense of Linda is brutally understandable and heart-wrenchingly truthful. For the most part he gave a magnificent go at an iconic character. It did, unfortunately, appear that there were difficulties accessing the darker and more draining aspects of the character in act two, but that is not an uncommon hurdle actors must get past. I quite look forward to seeing more of Mr. Gathron's work and watching how he grows and matures in his craft. I expect great things from him.
I would also be remiss without giving a special shout out to the unsung heroes of the supporting cast that are generally relegated to afterthoughts in the minds of an audience after a show of this nature. Steve Shearer is absolutely brilliant as Charlie, and truly embodies the style of this show. His Charlie is real, effortless, and lives entirely within the world of the play. Had the entirety of the cast showed the same stylistic acumen that Mr. Shearer displays then this would be a mind-numbingly stellar piece of work. Stephen Mercantel, as Charlie's son Bernard (Biff's friend mentioned earlier), is endearing as young Bernard in flash back sequences and is a polished and earnest catalyst for Willy in act two. Indeed, it is in Pouhé's scene with Mercantel that Willy finally lets the audience begin to see him crumble from the inside. It is a devastating moment, and one of my favorites of the entire evening. Joey Banks also provides a deliciously entertaining one-scene cameo as Howard, Willy's boss, giving a display of deft timing and carefully crafted carelessness which shifts beautifully into the first real insurmountable obstacle we see Willy unable to conquer. Suzanne Balling, pulling double duty playing Jenny and Miss Forsythe, gives two lovely, varied, and entirely different portrayals adding depth and color to the world of the play, and is a wonderful example of how characters and actors with little stage time can make a huge impact into the world of the show.
As to the technical elements, the ambivalent feelings regarding powerful moments versus powerful misses continues. Sound design by Joel Mercado-See starts the evening with a very smart nod to a conversation about Willy's father's flutes, and in a very interesting move he pairs Willy's final decent with a frenetic, desperate musicality. I actually wish they had not felt the need for sound effects in this moment, because I think it would have been more powerful to let the abstractness of the music speak for the mentality and action of the moment. Set design by Mike Toner makes good use of the potentially cramped space, giving an almost tangible edge to the family's feeling of being trapped and suffocated in the Loman's house. I do think the painted background buildings seemed noticeably less realistic than the other set elements, so it would have been nice to have more cohesion between all of the set elements, but once the performance began that quickly became a non-issue as no one focused on the background anymore. Costumes by Buffy Manners were excellent, adding a truly superb dimension to the characters and really bringing this tale to life. The lighting by Don Day was, for the most part, able to walk that fine line between fulfilling its function and not being distracting or noticeable. There were, though, a few cues that were uncomfortably sudden, and I honestly can't tell if that was by design or if we were experiencing issues with calling the cues the evening I saw the show. If it were the former I'd say it was a disparate element that didn't aid in the cohesion of the show. If it was the latter, well, sometimes things happen. That's the joy of live theater.
And finally, as to the direction of the piece, by Peter Sheridan, I feel he was able to deftly maneuver the action and characters with a smart, sharp and natural style. The only regret I had was that it seemed somewhat likely that specific moments were very important to him and thus some smaller, less noticeable elements were allowed to be shuffled aside to the point that they never got addressed. But I'm talking small things here. For example - when The Woman first appears a stagehand pops out to place a mirror on the proscenium when it could have easily been placed there by the actress as she entered and thus avoid breaking the reality of the show. It was a small thing, but jarring. Also, due to the very nature of that space, there is ambient light bleeding in from the lobby and/or building space beyond. You'll never have a full, true blackout. With that in mind, trying to set up a scene in a darkened half of a small stage while a scene plays out on the other side doesn't work because the movement will draw the eye of the audience. When you use the waiter characters to do these changes, noisily dragging furniture across the floor while their bright white shirts reflect the aforementioned light bleed, it is even more distracting. I would have liked to see these changes incorporated into the action of the show rather than trying to hide them in darkness or relying on the audience's willing suspension of disbelief. It is the minute elements of a show being given their deserved attention that can subtly take a show from good to great, and there were a couple of tiny things that pulled focus. But as I said, they are ultimately overshadowed by the strength of his work where he wanted us to focus.
All in all, the longer I think about the show the more I enjoyed it. There were certainly moments that were heavy handed in their emotional depth, or jarring in their juxtaposition of an odd choice within an otherwise unified world around them, but nonetheless it admirably fulfilled its duty. It entertained me, and it made me think. Oh yes, it definitely did both.
Photo credit: Austin Playhouse