Take it like a (Lo)man
Santa Paula revives an American classic
By Jenny Lower 02/14/2013
Since the financial crisis, Death of a Salesman has enjoyed a resurgence in American theater.
Save for some period references, Arthur Miller’s masterpiece could well encapsulate this generation: older workers cut loose, young people set adrift, primed by their parents for a golden future that no longer awaits them. Perhaps never more than since this play debuted, Willy Loman’s fate feels frighteningly tangible.
David Ralphe’s fine rendering, playing through Mar. 17 at Santa Paula Theater Center, remains faithful to this American classic while revealing new dimensions. Ralphe held out for a top-notch cast, and his patience has been rewarded — not one weak link can be found among the stellar ensemble gathered onstage.
Everything Taylor Kasch does onstage looks so effortless, it’s possible to underestimate the skill that goes into shaping his Willy. Not as washed-up in appearance as his Hoffman predecessors (Dustin and Philip Seymour), Kasch doesn’t immediately register as an object of ridicule or pity. He almost seems too grounded for the man who declares that his father’s absence left him feeling “kind of temporary about myself.” For Willy, nothing comes easily; he spends his life trying to replicate the apparently effortless ease with which other, grander men make their livelihoods.
Kasch doesn’t let us forget it. His Willy limps slightly as he trudges toward home. We see the flicker in his eyes at reminders of past infidelities, and his naked joy at seeming a hero to his boys. When he’s reduced to pleading with his boss (Peter Krause) for his job, we squirm with misery. Quick to anger, slow to forgive, Willy forgets there are no shortcuts, and passes on to his sons all the wrong lessons.
This failure becomes evident in sons Biff (Eric Stein) and Happy (Eric Mello), a bum and a philanderer who haven’t lived up to the promise of their golden youth. Throughout the play, we view the action in their second-story room through the enormous trophy on their nightstand — an inspired touch by set designer Mike Carnahan, and a telling symbol for their delusions of grandeur.
Stein’s soft, earnest face suits the man-child Biff has become, drifting from job to job since high school. Shuttling between cocky exuberance and resigned irritation, Stein shows us a man at war with his father and himself. Though his last breakdown seems extravagant, Stein offers a powerful counterpoint for Willy and Biff’s seesaw relationship. Meanwhile, Happy, the perennially overlooked younger child, plays peacemaker. By curtain fall, we know he’s doomed to repeat his father’s mistakes.
Throughout, artful staging and production values support the onstage dynamics. When Willy and Biff meet in a restaurant, Happy sits sandwiched between them. Beautifully lit by Gary Richardson, the show unfolds in dim amber light — as if the glare of reality would reveal Willy’s distorted perceptions.
As dutiful wife Linda, Anna Maria Strickland gets one of the great roles in American theater and the play’s final word. Her famous declaration in Act I that “attention must be paid” needs more iron in it, but Strickland is no Stepford wife. Her expressive eyes betray anxiety even when her face breaks into a smile. Strength and pain lie behind her good nature. By the time she declares at Willy’s graveside that she can’t cry, you’ll be in tears.
Death of a Salesman, through March 17, Santa Paula Theater Center, 525-4645, www.santapaulatheatercenter.org.