Death of a Salesman
Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Barry Pineo, Fri., Oct. 20, 2000
Death of a Salesman: Attention Must Be Paid
Mary Moody Northen Theatre,
Through October 23
Running Time: 3 hrs, 10 min
Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire, Long Day's Journey Into Night. The great triumvirate of American theatre literature. Yet before this production, I had never had the opportunity to see a live performance of the first play in this group. In my 14 years in Austin, it had not been produced or, to my knowledge, toured through the city. Williams and O'Neill's plays certainly had been, but not Arthur Miller's masterpiece.
Tremendous credit, then, must go to St. Edward's University and co-director/designers Melba Martinez and Michael Massey for attempting this dramatic monolith. Not only for attempting it, but for avoiding the contemporary pitfall of "updating" it and "making it relevant." Instead of surrounding the play with modern trappings or placing it in a modern setting, Martinez and Massey intelligently opt for the period in which the play was written: the 1940s. On a stage filled with varied playing levels and painted with splashy autumn colors evoking fallen leaves (in fact, the set eventually is covered with such leaves), panels hanging above, pressing down upon the characters, we watch Michael Costello's salesman Willy Loman wander through his dying world. Costello's Willy puts up a good front, but he is lost and lonely, the world weighing on his shoulders, the expectations of his consumer-driven society bending his back and pushing him into the ground. While there is much to recommend in Costello's performance, there is even more to recommend in Annie Suite's Linda, Willy's steadfast, loving spouse, who understands him all too well; and more in Brent Werzner's Biff, who manages to make the transition from the anticipation of youth to the regret of adulthood and back again most believably; and still more in Greg Holt's Uncle Ben, Willy's rich and dapper brother, the image of everything Willy hopes to achieve but never will.
The production has magical moments: the opening tableaux, Biff talking about his dreams of owning a ranch, Linda telling her boys about her husband's great value, Ben's impressive entrance, Willy's breakdowns in a restaurant and in front of his family. There also are moments -- far too many moments -- where cues drop, lines are forgotten, staging is flat, movement is constant and wandering, actors slip on the stage, sound cues pop out suddenly, and lights flash on and off. Not perfection certainly, but inconsequential finally. This play is the King Lear of American theatre. See it live while you can. It may be another 14 years before Austin has the chance again.