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Death of a Salesman
by Arthur Miller
Directed by Wayne Loui
Insight Theatre Company
September 11, 2014

Susie Wall, John Contini, Matthew Linhardt, Jason Contini Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Susie Wall, John Contini, Matthew Linhardt, Jason Contini
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Death of a Salesman is one of the most celebrated works in the history of American theatre. Originally produced in 1949, it has been produced many times over the years and made into several film versions.  Strangely enough, even though I had read the play in high school and watched the 1985 TV movie starring Dustin Hoffman, I had never actually seen the play on stage before seeing this new production at Insight Theatre Company. Even though the production is set in the era in which it was written, it’s a surprisingly timely play with many themes that still resonate as strongly today as they must have 65 years ago.  This production, the closing entry in Insight’s 2014 season, is more than a fitting introduction to this masterpiece of a play. It’s a masterpiece in itself, with stirring performances and a very strong sense of time, place, and message.

Here, John Contini takes on the much-coveted role of Willy Loman, a life-worn traveling salesman at the end of his career.  Although he’s in his 60s and not as physically able as he used to be, Willy insists he’s still on the top of his game, clinging to unrealistic dreams for both himself and his disillusioned son Biff (Matthew Linhart).  Willy also has a devoted, long-suffering wife, Linda (Susie Wall) and a younger son, Happy (Jason Contini) who are concerned for him, but Willy’s hopes and dreams are tied up mostly with Biff, and with grandiose thoughts from his younger life represented by visions of his much older and long gone adventurer brother Ben (Joneal Joplin), who represents opportunity and success for Willy. Exhausted, disillusioned, but still holding onto his unrealistic dreams, Willy has taken to talking to himself and reliving his past, especially his family life in better times with his hero-worshiping sons, not understanding why Biff doesn’t look up to him the way he used to, or why Biff never lived up to the high ideals Willy had for him.  Willy’s family, in turn, worries about him and wonders what to do about Willy’s increasingly self-destructive behavior, while Biff searches to discover his own identity, Happy copes with being mostly ignored by his father, and Linda desperately hopes for peace between her husband and their sons.  Also in the mix are Willy’s successful neighbor Charley (Tom Murray) and his son Bernard (Michael Pierce), who serve as a contrast to Willy as well as an object of jealousy for him, as he wonders why they seem to have a much more fulfilling life.

There’s a lot going on in this play, and it makes a theatre geek and writer like me extremely tempted to write a long, academic essay, but that’s not what reviews are for.  There’s so much here, though, and much of it is still relevant to today, with the ideals of the elusive “American Dream” and the eternal struggle to define “success” and fulfillment in life.  It also deals with common and powerful themes of parental expectations, family responsibilities and personal integrity vs. the urge to get ahead in life.  It’s a great American tragedy, although there are glimmers of hope as well, and much to think about and discuss.  It’s not a philosophical work, though–it’s a consummately structured play, with strong, gripping and memorable dialogue and an expertly crafted plot that builds to a powerful conclusion.  It’s a heavy play, but not without moments of humor, and Insight’s production handles the pacing particularly well.

The cast here is first rate. John Contini makes a strikingly real, unquestionably self-centered but still sympathetic Willy.  His very walk shows his weariness–a shuffling, slightly limping gait that becomes more confident and energetic in the flashbacks to earlier days.  His voice can be whiny or hopeful, and his face lights up noticeably with an almost childlike glee when he’s reflecting on his dreams, and his better times with Biff, making his complete deflation in later scenes all the more poignant.  As Biff, Linhart has the right look of a former promising athlete along with a palpable weariness, confusion, and simmering anger that comes to the surface in a memorable confrontation with Willy in the second act. Jason Contini (son of John) brings a strong combination of ingratiating ambition and underlying disappointment as the more upbeat but ignored son, Happy, and Wall is devastatingly effective as the ever-devoted Linda, standing by her man and showing growing concern as he slowly but surely comes unglued.  Her last speech in the play is astonishingly effective.  There’s also strong work from Joplin as the confident, idealized Ben, Murray as the weary but supportive Charley, Pierce as the studious and eventually successful but compassionate businessman Bernard, and by Taylor Pietz as a woman Willy meets in his travels to Boston.  The entire ensemble is well-cast and on form, adding to the overall mood of of this dynamic  production.

Also adding to the overall drama of this show is its remarkable production values.  The marvelously detailed,  multi-level set, designed by Kim Wilson, caught my attention immediately, and there’s so much depth to it that each time you look, there seems to be more to see. The 1940’s atmosphere is maintained very well through the use of this incredible, richly appointed set with a muted color palette, period furniture and excellent costumes by Tracy Newcomb.  Mark Wilson’s very precise lighting adds much depth to many of the scenes, as well, and a the sparing use of atmospheric music helps set and maintain just the right mood throughout the production.

Even after all the shows I’ve seen, I still feel so privileged to witness such a consummate, immediately affecting production of a much-honored classic of theatre.  This is the kind of show that doesn’t leave me when I leave the theatre. It sits in my brain and makes me ponder and remember the sheer depth of emotion presented on stage. Director Wayne Loui and his cast and crew have done such a remarkable job of bringing a real sense of urgency to this time-honored show.  It’s the undisputed highlight of Insight’s season–a brilliant and memorable piece of theatre not to be missed.

Matthew Linhardt, Joneal Joplin, John Contini, Susie Wall Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Matthew Linhardt, Joneal Joplin, John Contini, Susie Wall
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

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