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Regional Reviews by Fred Sokol

Death of a Salesman
Yale Repertory Theatre

Death of a Salesman
Charles Dutton
The very good news about Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is that the play remains absolutely relevant and resonant. Famous and produced often, the drama about a man who sways between reality and illusion and is beset, in 1949, with the stark loss of any steady income, is timely. Today, many within this country experience desperate circumstances parallel to those the Loman family faced while struggling to pay bills and survive. Yale Repertory Theatre, featuring all African-American actors, presents the play, directed by James Bundy, through May 23rd. Many but not all aspects of the production are commendable.

Formidable Charles S. Dutton plays Willy Loman, a sixty-year-old traveling salesman. He has oftentimes dreamt and fabricated of good times, and now claims he was liked by everyone as he brought in quite a few dollars while on the road during years gone by. He and the presentation bestow Expressionistic moments which actually complement Miller's potent realism. More often, Death of a Salesman renders life-as-is. The departures reference times within the past which are either actual or deliberately blurred.

Dutton is at the center of the play. The adept actor starred, decades ago, in August Wilson world premieres at Yale including Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Joe Turner's Come and Gone. Dutton's Willy Loman is fierce: with himself, his wife Linda (Kimberly Scott), and his son Biff (Ato Essandoh). Biff, perhaps, disappoints Willy more than anyone—including himself. Biff is returning from Texas where he was a ranch hand; he and his brother Happy (Billy Eugene Jones) have an outrageous plan to start an athletic equipment business.

Meanwhile, as Miller retreats into the past, we see that Willy has spent time, on the side, with another woman (Starla Benford) while ostensibly selling items for a living in Boston. Willy's brother Ben (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) once offered Willy the opportunity to make a small fortune with him in Alaska but Willy declined. Bernard (Austin Durant), a prototypical nerd in high school, is now an attorney preparing to argue a case before the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

Willy humiliates himself by asking his boss Howard (Howard W. Overshown) for a new job in New York City so that traveling by car will no longer create added stress. Willy was close with Howard's father who formerly ran the sales business. Now, Howard fires Willy. Charley (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a friend, gives Willy some cash to get the downtrodden neighbor by. A downward spiral is in progress.

The best parts of the evening are Miller's words and Dutton's performance. Some may allege that Miller is heavy handed. I believe that his vision rings true and this play is one which will continue to engage. It is a classic tragedy, depicting a hero's flaws even if he wishes to be a good man. Willy makes mistakes and he hasn't the time to hone his precious skills, those of gardening and carpentry. Trying to persuade himself that he has not been a failure, he comes to despise himself for having let everyone down. Complex and internally anguished, he figuratively batters himself more than (even) anyone else.

Dutton, playing someone worn down and out, moves laboriously as if each step pains him inordinately. Bundy's pacing, much of the time, is unhurried. The result is that the show lasts nearly three hours and twenty minutes. Too long.

Looking toward the stage before the show begins, one gazes upon a set which features dimmed windows within Brooklyn apartments (stage floor to ceiling) acting as a backdrop to the proceedings. Designer Scott Dougan created the backdrop and his tone is catalytic. Bundy's staging does not always work but most of the performances are solid. Kimberly Scott, a fine actress, does not seem to ever really find Linda's center.

This is a play which moves from reality to illusion to dream and so forth. It is rich, multi-layered, psychologically intriguing but imperfect. Yale Repertory is wise to bring the work to its audience.

Death of a Salesman continues at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven through May 23rd. For tickets, visit www.yalerep.org or call (203) 432-1234.


Photo: Joan Marcus


Also see the current theatre schedule for Connecticut & Beyond

- Fred Sokol



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