BWW Reviews: Nashville Rep's Stunning DEATH OF A SALESMAN

By: Mar. 17, 2015

Hitting perhaps too close to home for some and harkening back to memories best left unrecalled, while challenging audiences to examine their own lives, Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman remains an emotional, visceral theatrical masterpiece. Now, through March 28, it is vividly recaptured, like so much lightening in a bottle, in a deeply affecting production from Nashville Rep, directed with finesse by Rene D. Copeland and acted by an all-star cast of Nashville performers who together create a stunningly specific place in time that somehow is timeless and universal.

Heralded as one of the best plays of the 20th Century, Death of a Salesman (which opened on Broadway in 1949, winning both the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for best play) proves its relevance for a 21st century audience in the superb revival by Nashville Rep at TPAC's Andrew Johnson Theatre. Starring Chip Arnold as the iconic traveling salesman Willy Loman, with Rona Carter as his long-suffering and devoted wife Linda - and with Eric Pasto-Crosby and Matt Garner as their sons Biff and Happy - the classic drama is compellingly acted, filled with all the honesty inherent in Miller's beautifully written play, and brought to life with the combined talents of Copeland's extraordinary ensemble.

Miller's words crackle and pop with an intensity that creates a dynamic among the characters that is unparalleled, giving the piece a contemporary feel that ensures today's audiences will respond as strongly to the play as those in 1945 did. The playwright's use of flashbacks allows us to get to know the characters, warts and all, and to see first-hand the trajectory each character's life has taken from the 1920s to the 1940s, a period in America fraught with change - although the stock market crash of 1929 and World War II are given scant notice in the script. Rather, it's our knowledge of American history that informs us as we watch the travails of the Loman family play out onstage, adding layers of meaning and pathos to the story.

Willy Loman is a down-at-heels salesman whose territory is shrinking, he's been taken off salary and relegated to commission-only status, and his lifelong battles with life and the people around him continue unabated. Despite long-held hopes that things will somehow get better, Willy finds himself dragged deeper into the abyss of middle-class ennui and the dashed dreams of his younger self. Miller creates a Loman household that is tattered and threadbare, despite all the best efforts of matriarch Linda to provide sustenance and support for her husband and two callow sons who seem to resent their upbringing and the circumstances in which they find their parents at late middle age.

Matt Garner, Chip Arnold and Eric Pasto-Crosby

It's a bleak world, brought to life brilliantly by Copeland, her cast and crew. Copeland's direction deftly plays out onstage; you see her hand in the fluid movement of the actors, in the way one greets another or responds in a way of heightened naturalness, which makes Miller's play seem more real than fiction at times. You find it easy to forget these are characters in a play you're watching and not people you know - as if you stumbled into their house at a most inopportune moment - if you see yourself among Miller's cast of characters, credit should go to Copeland for your realization that Willy Loman's story is indeed ours.

Gary Hoff's set, which depicts the obsolescence of small family homes amid the soaring brick edifices in which scores of families now live where only one was meant to, is beautifully rendered (Hoff is a remarkable man and designer, to be certain) and fills the Johnson Theatre with the genius of his design. Yet, somehow, the result is properly stultifying and almost overbearing - none of the tragic beauty usually associated with a Gary Hoff set to be found here - rather, this is a spare, crumbling space where the fortunes of the Lomans have come to die.

Phillip Franck's exquisite lighting design illuminates the playing area, shedding light on the lives of a Brooklyn family, circa 1945, with a sharp focus on the realities of their lives while sometimes cloaking them in dream-like shadows, while his sound design provokes sentiment and anguish at appropriate moments. His musical selections, used sparingly to manipulate audience reactions gently in a non-presumptuous manner, concisely set a tone that permeates the entire production.

Trish Clark's period-perfect costume design augments the themes and events in the lives of her characters with much style: Willy's suits are slightly too big, making Chip Arnold look gaunt and lifeless at times, like a marionette lost in an ill-fitting schmatte; Biff and Happy's clothes help the actors to assume their characters' mantels with ease; and Linda's housedresses lack any specific style in order to create a portrait of a woman who's been forced to endure too much in her life.

Chip Arnold and Patrick Waller

The action of Death of a Salesman is easy to follow, eliciting such a visceral reaction from the audience because Miller's characters are so artfully crafted, so well-delineated and, in the case of Nashville Rep, so impeccably cast. Possibly most noteworthy of these performances are the skilled nuances and superb choices made by the cast. As they move in and out of the present time, to enact incidents in their characters' shared past, it is seamless and remarkably portrayed. The actors are nothing less than amazing in the way they present themselves now and then.

Arnold, stoop-shouldered and forlorn, is in the very depths of the human condition at one moment and then will soar in a way that will take your breath away. His Willy Loman is so believable, so on-the-mark that you might find yourself blanching at times, but make no mistake about it, he is as real as any man who ever walked this earth. Arnold's interactions with Pasto-Crosby and Garner, who play his sons with such forcefulness, are like watching a master class in acting, although you're far more likely to forget that they are acting instead of showing us the truth of the moment.

Carter creates a Linda who is heartbreakingly genuine, one who is fiercely loyal to her husband and sons, yet one who will in an instant turn against any one of the men in her family to protect her way of life. Sure, Linda's to be pitied at times, but there's enough grit about her to convince you that she has as much ownership of the Loman's story as Willy.

Pasto-Crosby plays Biff with a sense of entitlement that easily gives way to a Sisyphus-like struggle to surmount the cumulative heap of guilt and recriminations borne by his character. His climactic scene with Willy in the family's kitchen is stunningly played, heartrending in its way that all battles between fathers and sons are meant to be. The two actors go at each other with a ferocity that will rip out your heart, yet leave you exhilarated by the artistry of their talents. It's not unlike a prize fight between two athletes at the top of their game. You will not be disappointed, nor will you be surprised: this is where years of effort and work have brought two local actors of such high caliber.

Garner plays the shallow and sly Happy with sincerity, leavened by a heaping helping of smarmy unctuousness, the perfect recipe for playing an overlooked younger son for whom ambitions were lesser than those of his beloved older brother. David Compton, as next-door neighbor Charley, eases in and out of his young and older character with charm underscored by a sense of genuine gravitas, while Patrick Waller, as his klutzy son Bernard, is remarkably adept at playing his younger self then on a turn morphing into Bernard, the successful attorney.

The always outstanding Rebekah Durham makes the most of her time onstage as a woman who tempts and taunts the philandering Willy (allowing us a brief glimpse into the salesman's golden days), while Geoff Davin is terrific as Willy's boss Howard, somehow remaining likable even as he breaks Willy's heart. Derek Whittaker adds yet another impressive role to his expanding resume, bringing Willy's idolized brother Ben to life.

Four younger actors, each of whom is part of Nashville Rep's intern program (and who, coincidentally, are all First Night Most Promising Actors), are given their moments in the spotlight and take advantage of the opportunity to prove to us just how deep the talent pool in Nashville really is. Emily Eytchison, Abigail Kairdolf, Lindsey Mapes and Will Miranne acquit themselves with confidence and thorough commitment. Their presence in the production helps reiterate the importance of classic American theater and its place in our world, as a way of teaching, of educating and of illuminating the human condition for the ultimate good of us all.

-- Death of a Salesman. By Arthur Miller. Directed by Rene D. Copeland. Presented by Nashville Repertory Theatre. Through March 28. At Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Johnson Theatre. For details, go to Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (including a 15-minute intermission).