BWW Review: Attention Must Be Paid - LiveArts Presents Stirring DEATH OF A SALESMAN in Charlottesville
Attention must be paid once again to Arthur Miller's DEATH OF A SALESMAN.
One of Charlottesville's premier theatres is presenting the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama with a strong cast of leading players and impeccably directed by William Rough. An all-volunteer organization, LiveArts has a strong reputation in Central Virginia and this production is proof enough that community theatre can move an audience and illuminate a famous play with pathos and fine acting.
If you need background on Arthur Miller's 1949 play, you probably did not attend an American school during the last 70 years. DEATH OF A SALESMAN is usually required reading for English classes. At the same time, the play is revisited from coast-to-coast by theatres large and small, and has been brought back to Broadway a number of times, most recently with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in the role of Willy Loman, the salesman losing is touch and his mind in the twilight of his years.
LiveArts' Gibson Theatre is the larger performance space in their facility, but set designer Jerry King used the still intimate playing area to the fullest, providing the bare minimum of scenic elements - several levels, representing the Loman house and the areas of memory - and key pieces of furniture. These items, and the subtle but effective lighting design by Fabian J. Garcia, assist in the storytelling and allow the actors to give full sway to the domestic and personal struggles on display.
As the fractured salesman who wants desperately to hold on to his fragile American dream of success in business and a thriving family, Steve Tharp gives a masterful, nuanced performance as Willy Loman. His first entrance - with slumped shoulders, arms pulled down miles and miles by his sample cases, in a well-worn, rumpled suit - sets up his world-weary state from the beginning. Tharp rides the waves of Willy's despair, confusion, and euphoric memories with stinging truth. I swear he physically shrinks as Willy's plight goes from bad to worse before the he tragically takes charge of his life and death.
As his long-suffering and devoted wife Linda, Debra Drummond matches Tharp
scene for scene. When Drummond's Linda listens to Willy's last attempt at dreaming for the future, I believed her loving stare. As Linda's own desperation builds, while her husband descends into mental and emotional black hole, Drummond summons depths of feeling that I have rarely seen in actresses playing the role.
As their two sons - character with problems of their own, sadly - Martyn Kyle and Taylor Ballard are a study in contrasts. Each actor is perfectly cast as the adult Loman children, struggling with their father's plight, and wrestling their own at the same time. Kyle, as elder son Biff, is the picture of the all-American jock. That picture, however, is mostly a facade, since Biff has not held up the promise of his glory days as a high school football star. Now a drifter, Biff is a tarnished golden boy; Kyle turns in a powerful performance throughout, especially in his scenes with Tharp and Drummond.
Ballard, as younger son, Happy, plays the lady-killing lothario to the hilt. Miller made Happy more of a chip off of Willy's block, good with the gift of gab, and a dreamer who believes his own bull. Ballard has an expressive face and a natural charm which works well in the role; his scenes with Kyle crackle with humor, when needed, and with palpable tension, when required.
As a family unit, these four actors work together like a finely tuned ensemble, allowing the dramatic arc to build through the confusion, conflict and ultimate revelations of long-held secrets. Bill Rough, the director, clearly understands the layers of drama, comedy (yes, there are humorous moments!) and tragedy and allows the play to unravel, and dialogue land and settle for full effect.
The supporting cast is generally strong, too, especially Richard Cooper as the Loman's decent neighbor Charley, Richard Cooper makes the most of his role. Winston J. Smith handles the young nerdy version of Bernard memorably and creates a strong impression as the grown up Bernard. His scene with Willy, when we learn Bernard is not only a successful lawyer but a family man, speaks volumes about how Willy's dreams for this boys, especially Biff, weigh heavily on his soul.
During key scenes, the evocative sounds of flute music - echoes of Willy's past - are provided by Kristin Baltes, inspired by Alex North's impressionistic score from the original production. Baltes work adds a haunting background to the play, pointing out the sunny and dark corners of Willy's state of mind and memory.
LiveArts takes on both brand new pieces and the classics. Their new season includes the 1960s musical SWEET CHARITY and a recent Broadway comedy HAND TO GOD, for example. It is also nice to see a community theatre tackle a monumental (in length and breadth) drama such as DEATH OF A SALESMAN and do so with precision and impeccable casting.
Follow Jeff Walker on Twitter - @jeffwalker66
DEATH OF A SALESMAN by Arthur Miller
Through June 4, 2017
Produced by LiveArts - Gibson Theatre, 123 East Water Street, Charlottesville, VA, 22902
Two hours, 45 minutes with one intermission.
For tickets, call 434.977.4177 or go to https://livearts.secure.force.com/ticket
PHOTO CREDIT: Kelley Van Dilla / LiveArts