Death of a Salesman Theatre Review – A Golden “Salesman” Shines with Theatrical Glory

Linda (Kim Staunton) listens to Willy's (Charlie Robinson) story

(Costa Mesa, CA) September 11, 2013 – During the 1960s, college graduates Martin Benson and David Emmes had a crazy idea: to create a regional theatre on the west coast that can not only match the quality of Broadway, but somehow give back to the community that it is a part of. That community in question is Orange County and the name of the regional theatre is called South Coast Repertory (SCR), who officially opened its doors in 1964. It was a risk, but a risk that evolved beyond expectations. After a few venue changes and 49 years of producing quality plays, Benson and Emmes have seen their dreams come true in Costa Mesa with the Segerstrom and Julianne Argyros Stages. And to celebrate the 50th Season, Benson, Emmes, Artistic Director Marc Masterson and Managing Director Paula Tomei deliver a dynamic year of classics and new works. Serving as SCR’s Golden Anniversary season opener, Death of a Salesman is a powerful testament to the theatre’s legacy as a major artistic force in the country.  

It’s the late 1940s in Brooklyn, NY, and Willy Loman (Charlie Robinson) is a salesman who is at the end of his rope. Throughout his life, he has relied on charm and determination to be the best salesman on the east coast, to strive and grasp the American Dream of success. And he tries to maintain that sense of optimism for his wife Linda (Kim Staunton) and his two sons—the dreamer and idealist Biff (Chris Butler) and the schmoozing ladies man Happy (Larry Bates), teaching the young men the importance of being likable in order to achieve that success he hungers for. But the older Willy gets, the more tired he becomes. Willy’s determination transforms into delusions of misguided denial, preventing him to change along with the society and the times he lives in. And these delusions manifest in flashbacks to the “better times” of his past, especially when he sees and converses with a vision of his deceased brother Ben (a proud, charismatic Gregg Daniel), who struts on the stage like a peacock, seeming to sap the life force out of Willy with each appearance. Ben epitomizes the achievement that seems to elude Willy throughout his life. This self-destructive behavior wears on his family, building layers of anger and frustration until the top of the emotional volcano erupts, changing all their lives forever.

Willy (Charlie Robinson) shares about the American Dream to Biff (Chris Butler, left) and Happy (Larry Bates, right)

Although Arthur Miller’s masterpiece is universal in terms of the themes, portraying an African American Loman family is very timely indeed, especially with both unemployment and poverty, as of now, hitting an all time high among African American populations in the United States. Director Marc Masterson’s creative touch in this casting choice is brilliant in capturing the emotional power and range that all members of the Loman family experience. His creative use of utilizing an abstract scenic design (colorfully conjured by Michael B.  Raiford) that is an amalgam of jazz-like touches and modern architecture exudes an aura of claustrophobia upon the household. And when Willy begins to mentally and emotionally drift to the past, Masterson’s direction from present to past to present is fantastically fluidic.

Williy Loman (Charlie Robinson) comes home after a hard week of traveling

But the acting is the standout in this potent production and Robinson’s presence is truly magnetic. With shoulders dropped and a world-weary look on his face, Robinson almost wears the character of Willy like the old, wrinkled suit that he adorns. But he still has dignity and perseverance to overcome the obstacles he faces. However, both of these traits are disintegrating with each passing minute the more he realizes that his unwillingness to adapt to the times is destroying those who care about him the most. This stubbornness is implied throughout Miller’s text; when Willy says, “I don’t want a change” when he indicates that he prefers Swiss cheese over American, Robinson adds subtle nuance to the line, as well as his dynamic monologues and biting dialogue. But it is a key moment in the play where his friend Charlie (a pleasant, warmhearted James A. Watson, Jr.) offers Willy a job at his firm and Willy refuses for one reason: pride. It is that moment when Robinson’s optimistic façade crumbles even more; he slowly peels away the character's layers of misguided confidence as though it were a delicate onion. And when Willy has his final confrontation with Biff, Robinson expertly transcends from self-loathing to a type of acceptance that is heartbreaking. It’s a performance of a lifetime for this talented actor; when he received applause the very first moment he stepped on the stage, the audience knew in advance that this complex, tragic character is in the hands of an artist.

Biff (Chris Butler, right) confronts Willy (Charlie Robinson) as Happy and Linda (Larry Bates and Linda Staunton, far right) look on

The performances from all of his co-stars are laudable. However, it is the Loman family who shines in many unique ways. Staunton’s Linda is a true saint of a wife and mother, knowing very well the flawed man Willy is. But Staunton interweaves Linda’s compassion with courage. Although emotionally abused by Willy at times, Staunton doesn’t give the air of a victim; when her sons behave with selfishness and immorality, she powerfully strips down their prideful armor, revealing their own personal ugliness. Equally moving is Bates’ Happy, whose air of boisterous swagger hides an insecurity and fear that he may very well follow in his father’s footsteps. But Butler’s Biff is an incredible force of nature. He masterfully mixes dark, cynical intensity, gnawing guilt, and a type of mercurial intensity as though he were a skilled chemist creating a volatile potion. His commanding presence matches that of Robinson’s Willy, reaching soaring levels of pain and anguish. And yet, neither artist takes away the presence of Staunton and Bates; all four artists complement each other as though they were a jazz ensemble, improvising and playing off each other until they reach their own dramatic finale. It’s a tour de force for all four leads, making Death of a Salesman a mighty start for SCR’s 50th season.

South Coast Repertory: The Golden Anniversary

However, this profound season opener is significant in another manner, specifically for this reviewer. Ever since I wrote my first column for Splash Magazine in 2009, I was fortunate to review a considerable number of plays; some were truly sublime, and some were less to be desired. And I saw these productions at well-renowned venues such as The Ahmanson Theater, A Noise Within, The Pasadena Playhouse, Shakespeare Orange County, The Laguna Playhouse, and, of course, South Coast Repertory. I also had the opportunity to write commentaries regarding my other passion: film, as well as covering exciting events such as the 2011 Burbank Film Festival.

After four years, I am happy to announce that this review is my 50th article for Splash Magazine. And I couldn’t find a better way to celebrate my “golden anniversary” than reviewing an American theatrical landmark being beautifully produced at one of the most vital regional theatres in the county during its own Golden Anniversary season. Writing for Splash has also opened some professional doors for me with regard to my career as a fiction writer and freelance journalist, a career move that has become quite substantial this past year. To end my golden anniversary review, I would very much like to thank my editors Lawrence Davis, Steve Martin, and all the staff for their dedication and sacrifice in order to make this gem called Splash Magazine the best it can possibly be.  

Peter A. Balaskas is a fiction writer, copyeditor, journalist and voice over artist

Death of a Salesman runs from September 6-29, 2013

South Coast Repertory: Segerstrom Stage

655 Town Center Drive

Costa Mesa, CA 92628-2197

Photos by Debora Robinson (play) and South Coast Repertory (theatre)

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