Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The plot focuses on Willy Loman, a traveling salesman, who has led an uneventful and fairy tragic life, as he nears retirement. Everyone around Willyincluding his brother, his neighbor, and his bossis living the American Dream that has somehow eluded Willy and his sons. This broken-down man begins to lose touch with reality and as the memories of the past dance across Willy's mind, we see the events that led to his wasted and unfulfilled life and how it has impacted his long-suffering wife Linda and their two sons, Biff and Happy.
The play features rich characters that are identifiable on many levels, as well as topics, relationships and themes that are highly recognizable. Its focus on status, being well-liked, and materialism as the barometers of success are still incredibly pertinent in today's world where so many are so focused on the number of social media followers they have, the amount of their paycheck, or making sure they have the latest technological devices. There are numerous well-known lines of dialogue and moments in the play, including one of its more famous monologues in which Linda stresses that "attention must be paid" in referring to how, even though Willy isn't perfect or famous, he deserves respect. Miller asks questions that don't have easy answers, such as why do some find it much easier to achieve the American Dream, while others suffer?
Director Virginia Olivieri and her cast deliver on the many thought-provoking themes and ideas Miller has packed into this classic play. The intimacy of Desert Stages' Actor's Cafe provides the audience with an up close and personal view into Willy's downfall, and Olivieri and the excellent cast ensure the numerous scenes of heartbreak and heartache pack a punch. The scenes that depict Willy's lapses of reality as they blend with memories of the past are clearly directed and expertly acted, with excellent shifts of lighting by Stacey Walston and sound effects by Drake Dole to beautiful evoke the confused and almost dreamlike state Willy is in.
Walt Pedano is delivering a well-crafted and beautifully thought-out portrayal of this man who lives paycheck to paycheck yet still believes all he needs is to be well-liked and respected to be successful. Pedano's performance makes the audience feel a range of emotions, from pitying Willy to hating him for how horribly he treats his wife and sons at times to feeling slightly sorry for him even though just about everything that happens to him and his family is due to his own actions. It's a realistic, nuanced and layered performance infused with pathos and pain.
Donna Kaufman is equally as effective as Willy's long-suffering, dutiful wife Linda. Linda is the voice of reason in the Loman household and Willy's foundation and emotional support, but also is easily taken in my Willy's delusional hopes and dreams. Kaufman nicely balances these shifting character traits while also showing us that Linda is much stronger than she seems. She does a beautiful job with Linda's monologues, especially the one that ends the play. Kaufman is delivering a solid and moving performance of this patient and loyal yet submissive woman.
Matthew Fields Winter and Mo Simpson are very good as the two sons, Biff and Happy. Biff is a 34-year-old man who was once the high school football star but has been lost and living in a dream for the past 15 years. He's distanced himself from his father at the time the play begins, and Winter does a beautiful job depicting Biff's pain and the hurt he felt at the moment his life changed. Simpson infuses the womanizing Happy with large doses of charisma and confidence, and it's easy to see from his performance that Happy may grow up to be exactly like his father. Pedano, Kaufman, Winter and Simpson create a realistic and believable family, warts and all.
In supporting parts, J. Kevin Tallent delivers a rich portrayal of Willy's successful and deceased older brother Ben, whom Willy looks up to, and Al Benneian is charming as Willy's neighbor Charly. Steven Rowe, Huberto Paz, Bonnie Piper, Stephanie Vlasich and Kendyl Feldman provide ample support in a series of smaller parts.
The fairly simple but highly effective set design by Olivieri (constructed by Rick Sandifer and dressed by Wendy Claus) allows the focus to be on the text and the characters. A nice touch is how the crumbling wall paper and chipped paint on the walls and floor mirrors the state of Willy and his family's lives. Mickey Courtney's period and character-specific costumes are excellent.
Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is considered one of the greatest American plays every written. Desert Stages' production features a gifted cast and precise direction that result in a moving, beautiful and solid presentation of this classic drama.
Death of a Salesman, through April 14, 2019, at Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre at Fashion Square, 7014 East Camelback Road, Suite 0586, Scottsdale AZ. For tickets and information, call 480-483-1664 or visit desertstages.org.
Director: Virginia Olivieri