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Review: DEATH OF A SALESMAN at Ruskin Group Theatre

Review: DEATH OF A SALESMAN at Ruskin Group Theatre

DEATH OF A SALESMAN, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Arthur Miller, is the American Hamlet for actors of a certain age. Its protagonist is a complex, frighteningly bare role, that provides an acting challenge relished by the greats. Rob Morrow, best known for Robert Redford's QUIZ SHOW and the quirky TV dramedy NORTHERN EXPOSURE, pulls off the tricky role by adding an impish quality to the crumbling man, bringing a fresh light to the production at Ruskin Group Theatre.

As American soldiers returned from WWII in the mid-forties, they were all promised a slice of the American Dream. If you work hard and put in the time, you'll get the house, the 2.5 kids, and the security for the rest of your life. While the younger men were fighting in Europe and the Pacific, Willy Loman (Morrow) had been traveling the east coast hocking his wares for buyers, staying in stale motel rooms, and slowly becoming a has-been in a business that never rewarded him in the first place. Willy believes in the American Dream and he trusts all the riches are coming to him and his two boys Biff (Robert Adamson) and Happy (Dylan Rourke). His fantasies of achievement have long shattered his reality, but Willy has lied for so long about his accomplishments and respectability, that no one in the family can differentiate truth from delusion. Willy's son Happy, a womanizing chip off the old block, enjoys the game and has no problem keeping up his father's falsities, but Biff, someone who has long been devastated the family's deceits, has finally had enough.

Miller's play paints an ugly image of the American struggle to keep up with the Joneses and its view of success in terms of money and outside adoration. Willy Loman is the ultimate patsy of the system and it swallows him whole.

There's a puckishness to Morrow's performance when his Willy Loman needles his neighbor/friend Ben or huddles with his young sons. He stutters a lot, giving the illusion that Willy's thoughts are colliding into each other in his head. From the first time audiences meet Willy, he already has one foot in the grave. Lee Garlington projects Linda Loman's impenetrable devotion to her husband despite all his faults and her deep aggravation towards her sons who she feels have failed their fragile father. Adamson is heartbreaking as the son who wants to do right by his family but recognizes that he can never rise above their notions of what would make him a success. Rourke is cock-sure and smarmy as the son who follows his father's blueprint too closely. The scene in the restaurant when he puts the make on two young women would cause anyone to need to take a shower. As the level-headed next-door neighbor, Jack Merrill brings out Morrow's playfulness when they spar together playing cards or joshing each other. Though Morrow's Willy says vicious things to his friend, both play the role as if they love each other, even if they don't respect or understand each other. The four leads are supported by a strong cast of young actors playing various roles.

Due to the small space and naturalistic acting, director Mike Reilly allows the audience to eavesdrop on this family imploding. Stripped down of any visual theatrics, the audience has nothing to do but listen to Miller's compelling words told by people who seem to be living the nightmare. Stephanie Kerley Schwartz's set utilizes the entire space to transport the audiences to skanky hotels, posh restaurants, and the soon to be fully paid home of the Lomans.

An American tragedy, DEATH OF A SALESMAN punctures a hole in the inflated principals of the post-war USA. At The Ruskin Group Theatre, Rob Morrow and his cast illustrate all the reasons why the play still resonates over a half a century later.

Photo credit: Ed Krieger
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