Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Death of a Salesman
Iconic Play Soars in Powerful Production

San Jose Stage Company

Also see Richard's reviews of Meg Mackay, Billy Philadelphia, Russ Lorenson & Veronica Klaus, Nick & Nora and The Braggart Soldier, or Major Blowhard


Randall King, Danny Jones (up front), Lucinda Hitchcock Cone, and Jeffrey Brian Adams
American playwright Arthur Miller established his legacy in 1949 with his second and most famous work, Death of a Salesman, which won both Pulitzer and Tony awards. The play has frequently been revived on Broadway, and graces regional and educational stages almost continuously. Numerous film and television versions attest to its enduring resonance with the American psyche, and one might think it risks being overdone. And yet, it's still possible to see an utterly astonishing production of this masterpiece done with such skill and honesty that it makes it feel as fresh as it was in 1949, as powerful and poignant as ever. Such is the brilliant performance happening at San Jose Stage right now. You won't want to miss this one.

Willy Loman (Randall King), Miller's Everyman, has outlived his usefulness as a territory salesman in New England. After 30 years, he's reduced to working for commissions only, can't make ends meet, and struggles with his valiant wife Linda (Lucinda Hitchcock Cone) to juggle bills and count pennies. Borrowing from his neighbor Charley (Michael Bellino) keeps Willy afloat.

Willy and Linda's two adult sons Biff (Danny Jones) and Happy (Jeffrey Brian Adams) have come home for a brief family reunion, although tensions are running high and the outcome is uncertain. Alone, Willy talks loudly to himself, alarming Linda and the boys; and when she reveals an even more shocking find to her sons, they vow to help out—Biff, the oldest, even agrees to sacrifice his freedom out West and return home to find a job.

But jobs are hard to find, especially when Biff's checkered past haunts him, and Willy refuses to "settle" for a job that doesn't measure up to his ambition for himself or his sons. Truths are elusive, fame is seductive, and being "well-liked" is the gold standard. Willy hallucinates his older brother Ben (Kevin Blackton), whose apparent success constantly reminds him of his shortcomings, his inability to show any achievements for his long career. As the perfect storm of failures and disappointments builds to a peak, Willy's world implodes, dreams and hopes and illusions crashing around him.

Much is made of the failure of the American Dream as depicted here, but there are also themes of the need for recognition and appreciation, the need to feel useful and somehow significant, and the simple need for approval—for someone to validate one's work. Linda's famous line, "Attention must be paid," emblematically captures the capitalistic boom of post-war America and its casting off of old ways and the people stuck in those ways. Willy's boss Howard (Will Springhorn, Jr) has his newfangled machine and a determination to move forward—and Willy isn't part of that movement. Other themes include the cult of celebrity, the curse of false bravado, and the potential devastation of a broken family dynamic.

King gives a most amazing performance, vanishing into Loman and emerging with a raw honesty that is brutally clear and completely believable. He's partnered perfectly by Cone as Linda—her first scene with her sons is positively inspired—and Jones and Adams as the two dysfunctional young men. Together they create a vivid and indelible portrait of a family torn apart by illusions and lies. The family is ably supported by a wealth of talent in the ensemble, even in smaller roles.

Director Kenneth Kelleher's deft staging and lively pace keep the action engaging and compelling. Giulio Perrone's fluid scenic design pairs with superb lighting by Maurice Vercoutere and clever sound design by Cliff Caruthers to move rapidly from scene to scene, from past to present to hallucination, from indoors to outdoors, without encumbrance. The theatricality of the piece shines through, and reminded me of Miller's first title for the play, "Inside His Head." Tanya Finkelstein's period costuming aids character definition but also state of mind, and evokes different eras with simple changes.

The show is masterful. It's a stunning achievement, a memorable production constructed of virtuoso performance and fidelity to the text. Skillful work such as this deserves all our attention.

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller; presented by San Jose Stage, 490 South First Street, San Jose, through April 26, 2015. Tickets $25 - $50, available at 408-283-7142 or at www.thestage.org.


Photo: Dave Lepori


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Jeanie K. Smith


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