BWW Reviews: SCR Opens 50th Season with Revival of DEATH OF A SALESMAN

To kickstart its 50th Season, Orange County's Tony Award-winning South Coast Repertory is presenting a newly-envisioned local revival of the classic 1949 Pulitzer Prize-winning play DEATH OF A SALESMAN, with performances on the Segerstrom Stage continuing through September 29.

Helmed by SCR Artistic Director Marc Masterson, this new production of Arthur Miller's oft-produced tragic story of an aging traveling salesman stubbornly hanging onto his pursuit of the American Dream---an endevour that is continuously squelched by environmental and emotional obstacles beyond anyone's control---is re-imagined with a fresh perspective, particularly in its casting of outstanding stage and screen actor Charlie Robinson (a favorite presence in SCR plays) in the heavy, emotionally-taxing role of Willy Loman.

While the practice certainly isn't new, by aligning itself to this currently revitalized trend of color-blind casting previously all-Caucasian stage plays, SCR's DEATH OF A SALESMAN adds a new layer of situational subtext to the drama by presenting the Lomans as an African-American family living in modest means in Brooklyn, New York. Remarkably, though, despite this significant change, the play's dialogue hasn't been completely altered to reflect this exciting revision; no one's ethnic background is overtly mentioned---nor does it need to be. These Lomans certainly serve as a testament to just how universAl Miller's words of hope, fear, and disappointment are, no matter who orates them.

By simply having people of color utter these same harrowing lines, an intriguing, dynamic new point-of-view is given a chance to surface in Miller's play. At least on paper, Willy's struggles---and, yes, his unlikable foibles and frustrations---can be just as palpable within this framework and, perhaps, even more so when given proper staging. And, for the most part, SCR's admirable production succeeds in fulfilling its venture.

The story, as told in its 1949 Tony-winning debut run, remains intact: Patriarch Willy Loman (Robinson)---husband to devoted wife Linda (Kim Staunton), and father to once-promising sons Happy (Larry Bates) and Biff (Chris Butler)---has steadily over the years morphed into one tired, embittered salesman. At a prideful 60 years old, his job has steadily become a cumbersome, inescapable, physically-debilitating chore. But, despite this, he presses on---after all, there are bills to pay, repairs to be made, and two extra mouths to feed now that his grown sons are living back at home. More than anything, the suffering for this workhorse is just a consequence of the bigger picture he still clings to for dear life.

"A man has got to add up to something!" Willy bellows like a mantra of perseverance, hoping his children would heed it as well.

But something else is happening to Willy that his family has noticed lately. Aside from his heightened gruff temper and cantankerous monologues, his stream-of-consciousness rants---which sometimes manifest in fervent exchanges with people that only he can actually see---has increased in frequency and intensity. This mental deterioration understandably worries his wife and sons.

The audience, however, is afforded a glimpse into all the facets of these erratic outbursts. As Willy recollects---and interacts with---his past and present in a mish-mash of jumbled, time-jumping chaos, we see his life story come to life before our very eyes, revealing hidden secrets, missed opportunities, obscured feelings, and, sadly, continually dashed dreams.

As an archetype of a man who continues to work his way towards achieving the so-called "American Dream"---with the hopes of being able to pass on these earned "riches" of life to his children, and in turn continue the legacy of such values---Willy Loman, the character (and the many Willy Lomans of every generation) are instantly identifiable to every audience member who comes across the play. In his version of Willy, Robinson---an outstanding character actor with a booming, ripped-from-the-heart vocal delivery---is absolutely mesmerizing to watch, giving his intensely-realized performance the kind of pathos and full-bodied gravitas that prove to be this production's strongest, most memorable asset.

His co-stars, particularly every actor tasked to play his immediate family, are also quite impressive. Their interactions with Robinson are heartbreaking, touching, and, at times, wildly infuriating---quite a rollercoaster of emotions. In this sense, SCR's DEATH OF A SALESMAN is, without question, an all-around acting triumph.

But as laudable as the acting performances are, the play's staging and visuals---much like the activity in Willy Loman's slowly jumbling brain---are too steeped in its own abstractions to really grab its audience much more emotionally to the core as it could potentially have. Though for the most part, the play's instant time jumps---a dramatization of the instantaneous flashbacks Willy has at any given moment---are effectively understandable, a bit more work is required for an audience member to differentiate the staging between past and present when they collide simultaneously within a scene. (Oh crap, is that woman hiding in the Loman's bedroom closet? Wait... that's a bathroom? Oh, wait... is this dinner scene a flashback or in the present? Wait... what?!)

Additionally, there is also a noticeable disconnect between the fully-fleshed characters we see on stage with Michael B. Raiford's minimalist, too-abstract set design. Made up mostly of modern-looking striated wood structures that serve as everything from the Lomans' supposed humble home to a swanky downtown restaurant to a non-descript hotel room, it's difficult to pin-point when and where this play is actually set at any given moment until the characters actually say where they are (as an admitted non-expert with this particular Miller play, I had to look again in the program during intermission as a reminder that this revival's story takes place in the 40's and that the Loman home was in, what?, Brooklyn---ah, okay, now I can make out the New York Skyline ever-so-subtle in the structure towering downstage).

In essence, I feel that in a revival this specific in its casting that there is somewhat of a missed opportunity here. Okay, sure, let Miller's words remain untouched... but why not swathe the production with an environmental realism that honors a real-life experience that reflects the kind of socio-economic hardships the Lomans speak about in the play so distinctly? As they stand, the non-specific, abstract structures in no way indicate what kind of home Willy was working so damn hard to upkeep in the first place. At the same time, there are hardly any set changes---save for a magically-disappearing retro refrigerator. Theater spaces, sure, have more wiggle room for interpretation, but here, I feel that the so-abstract-it's-hip scenery hindered the production from fully realizing the emotional potential of its new conceit.

Still, with all that said, the superb performances of the fine cast that have been assembled for this revival is what makes the production oh-so worth the price of a ticket. To be perfectly honest, if you want to witness first-hand some of the most riveting explosive acting in a classic play that you haven't seen in a while, or have yet to experience at all, then do yourself a favor and go see this production. By the time the play's title comes to tragic fruition, you too will be emotionally spent, thanks to a slew of absolute award-worthy performances.

Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ

Photos by Debora Robinson/SCR. From top: Willy Loman (Charlie Robinson) arrives home after a long business trip; Linda (Kim Staunton) listens to her husband's complaints about life on the road; Willy in happier times with sons Biff (Chris Butler, left) and Happy (Larry Bates).

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Performances of DEATH OF A SALESMAN continue at South Coast Repertory through September 29, 2013. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.

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From This Author Michael L. Quintos

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