Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Death of a Salesman

Ed Claudio
Fredric March, Brian Dennehy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, George C. Scott, Dustin Hoffman and Lee J. Cobb are some of the A-list actors who have played the iconic Willy Loman, the protagonist of Arthur Miller’s classic “Death of a Salesman,” now being presented by the Actors Workshop of Sacramento at the California Stage complex, under the direction of Eason Donner.

Now Sacramento’s grand old man of theater, Ed Claudio, has taken on the role of Willy Loman, a role that has been on his bucket list since he first played it for only two weeks 15 years ago. “It’s my favorite role. My favorite play,” says Claudio, who believes now is his time, before he gets “too old to do it.”

How fortunate we are that he made this decision. From the moment Willy shuffles through the front door, bent over with the weight of his grips, and wearily makes his way to the bedroom, Claudio is Willy Loman.

(No program credit is given for set design, but the cozy, if tired, two-story house of 1940s Brooklyn is perfect.)

This is not a happy play. It is the story of a man nearing the end of his life, beaten down by a profession that used to hold him in high regard, a son who failed to fulfill the promise his father had for him, and a life that just hasn’t turned out the way he expected it to.

Willy has been a salesman all of his life, and in his younger days was well respected by the buyers around the country, and was good friends with the owner of the company for which he worked.

But the world is changing.

New people don’t know him and don’t order from him, the boss’ son now runs the company and has kept Willy on because he has been there so long, but, at 65 he doesn’t have the physical stamina that he did years before. And so when Willy comes, asking to be assigned to the home office and taken off the road, he is fired.

Willy has a hair trigger and, as downtrodden and defeated as he can be, he can also explode in anger at a moment’s notice, and often does.

Claudio does well, bouncing back and forth between Willy’s present and his fantasy life with a brother he admired (now long dead), and son Biff’s (Matt Fairall) glory days as the high school football hero.

Willy’s brother Ben (Chris Amick) is the epitome of the American dream, having struck it rich in the diamond mines. “Why, boys, when I was 17 I walked into the jungle, and when I was 21 I walked out. And by God, I was rich.”

Lighting designer Alicia Thayer kind of dropped the ball here. In other productions I have seen, there is a definite change in light between the present and the dream world, but on the small California State stage, that change somehow got lost and it was not always immediately apparent in which world Willy was living.

Claudio is surrounded by a solid cast of characters from his theater workshop. Fairall gives a very strong performance as Biff, the kid on whose shoulders his father pinned all his hopes for success. But like too many high school athletic stars, Biff just doesn’t have the smarts for college or the drive to succeed. He handles the scenes where he is the virile young stud whose world was his oyster as well as the befuddled adult he has become, more interested in drink than in pursuing a career.

(Willy refuses to acknowledge that Biff’s discovery of his father’s affair on the road had a profound effect on the rest of his life.)

Younger son Hap (Kevin Frame) is a people pleaser, always trying to win his father’s approval, but lost in Willy’s obsession with Biff. Frame is not often the center of a scene, but he has a wonderful way of always being in the scene and never losing focus. Hap is a philanderer, going from one woman to the next with no desire to establish a permanent relationship.

Willy’s wife Linda is often seen as a world-weary woman, as beaten down by life as her husband, but Laura Luke is a life force, a fiercely loyal wife, protective of her husband, and ready to do battle with anyone not in his corner.

Darryl DeHart is Charley, the next-door neighbor, who likes Willy enough to lend him money to keep him afloat, though Willy never seems able to repay his loan. Bernard (Zach Coles) is Charley’s son. Though he will not admit it, Willy is jealous of the good father-son relationship they have and the success they have achieved in life.

The play moves toward its inevitable tragic conclusion and when the small group of four stand at Willy’s grave, one remembers his delight in imagining how people would come from all over his territory and there would be a huge crowd at his funeral.

For a “feel good” night of theater, this is not your cup of tea, but for an impeccable script and outstanding performances, this is one production that is well worth seeing.

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