Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Death of a Salesman
American Players Theatre | Spring Green, Wisconsin
Review by John Olson | Season Schedule

Also see John's reviews of An Ideal Husband, Between Riverside and Crazy and Tomorrow Morning


Casey Hoekstra, Tracy Michelle Arnold, Marcus Truschinski and Brian Mani
Photo by Liz Lauren
In my interview with APT Artistic Director Brenda DeVita last year, she explained how the company's mission included a focus on the text—to let the words do the storytelling more than literal visual representation. That philosophy is on display big time in their minimalist Death of a Salesman, playing in repertory this summer in the company's amphitheater.

While the production sports appropriate period costumes (designed by Devon Painter), the set by Michael Ganio is just a bed, refrigerator, stove, kitchen table and chairs, along with a plain staircase and platform leading up to the bedroom shared by Loman sons Biff and Happy. Given that actors are unmiked—the bowl in which the Up-the-Hill Theatre is located has naturally good acoustics—there's little sound design, save for some recorded sound effects and a lovely original musical score, both by John Tanner. The timing of the performance I attended, a Sunday evening show at 6 pm in early July, meant that the lighting design would be invisible until roughly the last 10 minutes of the play. So largely by intention, and somewhat by the timing of the performance, this was a mostly design-less production, performed as were Shakespeare's plays in the original Old Globe, with natural lighting and sound and virtually no sets. In the hands of this cast directed by Kenneth Albers, Arthur Miller's text needs no more and the comparison to Shakespeare is well deserved.

Their Willy Loman is Brian Mani, a 17-season veteran of APT who is based in Milwaukee and well known to audiences there for roles at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre and other companies. His broad shoulders slump some to suggest Willy's weariness. His Willy suggests a one-commanding physical presence (that returns in the flashbacks) but in his halting walk and soft speech in the present shows the character's genuine melancholy and sense of defeat. There's gentleness in his current situation that demands our empathy. Even in his unreasonable demands of son Biff and his onstage infidelity to his loving wife Linda, we can still empathize with him. This is of course one of the great roles of modern theater and Mani proves himself worthy.

Tracy Michelle Arnold is Mani's Linda Loman and her multi-layered performance shows a wife who is completely aware of what's going on with husband Willy—not in denial of his deteriorating condition or afraid to confront it, but proceeding cautiously in taking steps to protect him. She hopes things will work out, but is careful not to take actions that might hurt Willy rather than improve the situation. Marcus Truschinski masters the various life stages of Biff—as the cocky teenage quarterback, the wounded adolescent who learns of his father's imperfects, and finally unleashing the storm of emotions that brings the play to its tragic conclusion. Seeing Arnold and Truschinski in the roles just one day after watching their performances in such polar opposite roles from Linda and Biff (the cunning and witty Mrs. Cheveley and Lord Goring in Wilde's An Ideal Husband) was a revelation and a perfect example of the joys of viewing a repertory company on successive nights. The Loman family is completed by a very energetic and intriguing portrayal of Happy by Casey Hoekstra. Hoekstra gives the younger Loman son a contemporary take on Happy's playboy nature. In his very watchable performance he's charismatic and charming, but shows Happy's shallowness as well.

The supporting performances are all first rate as well, with Johnny Lee Davenport the quiet and kind neighbor Charley and Sylvester Little, Jr. his bookish son Bernard. John Pribyl is the icy and heartless Uncle Ben, appearing in a white suit in the main aisle for Willy's imaginary conversations with the dead uncle. Bobby Bowman is appropriately self-absorbed and weaselly as the boss who fires Willy. Solid work is also provided by Sarah Day, Eric Schabla, Laura Rook, Jade Payton, Rebecca Hurd and Ninos Baba in other supporting roles.

Those who would consider a trip to American Players Theatre from Chicago or farther may want to maximize their time by catching a number of plays and making it a multi-day trip. The company's rotation of plays between the outdoor Up-the-Hill Theatre and their indoor Touchstone Theatre generally allows for viewing three or four plays in two or three days. In June and July, three plays run in rep on the hill (this year, A Comedy of Errors along with Salesman and Husband) and two in the Touchstone (this year, they're The African Company Presents Richard III and Sarah Ruhl's Eurydice). In August and September, two more plays will be added to the Hill's rep (King Lear and Arcadia), with Beckett's Endgame joining the Touchstone rep.

So, though there are matinees many (but not all) Saturdays and Sundays, what to do in between shows? There are other opportunities to commune with the great thinkers of humanity. Downtown Spring Green boasts the wonderful bookstore Arcadia, with a curated and notated selection of books that is heavy on the arts, philosophy and history. It's a café as well, boasting tasty sandwiches and locally packaged coffees. It would be easy to spend many of the waking hours in between performances in their comfy chairs. Communion with another great artist of another sort, the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, can be done at Taliesin, the estate which was once his home and remains a working studio and school in the summer months. Tours of various lengths show his buildings of the area and provide historical and critical background on his life and work. The Visitors Center is just down the road from the theater. For accommodations, there's the spacious but serene House on the Rock resort just a mile from the theatre as well as numerous B & B's within a half-hour's drive.

Death of a Salesman, through September 16, 2016, at American Players Theatre, 5950 Golf Course Road, Spring Green, Wisconsin. For more information or for tickets, visit www.americanplayers.org or call 608-588-2361.


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