BWW Review: Trinity Rep's DEATH OF A SALESMAN is Theatre At Its Best
DEATH OF A SALESMAN is a story so human and massive that it's almost impossible to summarize. Like all great drama, every word feels perfectly selected to heighten tension, despair and frustration, but it doesn't leave the audience demoralized or depressed, but rather full of questions and theories and appreciation for the fine craft of storytelling. Trinity Rep does a fantastic job with the source material, and somehow manages to make it seem current, even though it's clearly set in the 1940s. It's startling to be confronted with the fact that the problems of the 40s are still things we are grappling with today, even as we seem to be yearning for those "simpler" times. This is obviously something director Brian McEleney had in mind, as did Artistic Director Curt Columbus when he titled the fall season "The American Dream, Then and Now", and paired DEATH OF A SALESMAN with Skeleton Crew, a current story of another type of displaced worker. This play is a masterpiece for a reason, and seeing a masterpiece performed in the intimate Dowling Theatre is a pure pleasure.
Stephen Berenson plays Willy Loman, the titular salesman, and a character who manages to pry so many contradictory emotions out of the audience, it's easy to see why this play has been performed consistently for the last 70 years. Berenson's performance is particularly fascinating in the way he ping pongs so smoothly between heaping praise on his son and dismissing his wife, almost in the same breath. But even knowing what a despicable person he is at times, it's impossible not to feel sorry for him. That is a delicate balance that Berenson manages beautifully. Willy Loman is a terribly flawed character, but somehow Berenson still provokes empathy.
Phyllis Kay is magnetic as Linda Loman, even though Linda Loman, on the surface, seems like someone who would never want to outshine anyone. She doesn't have many lines, but every single one lands perfectly, and Kay's natural comic ability shines through occasionally, tempering the tension right when the audience needs a bit of a break. Matt Lytle as Biff and Billy Hutto as Happy hold their own impressively against their more seasoned castmates, and all four of the Loman bunch have a very familial family dynamic that feels authentic. As Biff struggles again with his father's expectations, Lytle manages to deftly convey his own subtle breakdown in the face of expectations placed upon him, his father's deteriorating mental state, and the horrible secret that's eating away at him.
The staging also works remarkably well in this production. Willy Loman's loosening grasp on reality is communicated by having the entire cast at times line the aisles and speak all at once creating an overwhelming cacophony of sound where it's impossible to single out one voice. It's incredibly effective--jarring and disorienting to hear. Each of the five entrances to the theatre was put to use, which made the intimate space seem bigger and busier when it needed to, and then small and intimate in other moments.
It's hard to go to a play that is so well-known and still come away surprised, but Trinity Rep has pulled that off once again. The production doesn't take too many explicit risks that could come off as gimmicky, instead it gives us a straightforward production of an American classic skillfully executed and with an exceptional cast. This is a show that will have you thinking and discussing long after you leave.
PROVIDENCE, RI: Trinity Repertory Company presents Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman directed by Brian McEleney. Performances run through November 26, in repertory with Dominique Morisseau's Skeleton Crew. Tickets are on sale by phone at (401) 351-4242, online at www.trinityrep.com, or in person at the theater's box office at 201 Washington Street, Providence.