Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Death of a Salesman
The actors who populate the Loman family, in a new production at the Edison Theatre, glide through many of Miller's foreboding moments with laconic attitudes and a whistling-past-the-graveyard kind of humor for much of the classic drama. It's almost as if growing up Black in America has inoculated them against tragedy. The mood is often (perhaps shockingly) light and garrulous for these postwar Brooklynites. And yet, boisterous pride and a ready laugh become strangely reliable diversions in this new staging of the Pulitzer Prize winning drama from 1949. Just guessing their inevitable, emotional path from complacency to destruction becomes a big part of the psychological mystery this time out.
But the contours of grief and catharsis do emerge, in staggering formations. Miller's mind-bending tragedy lands with the force of a sledgehammer under the flowing direction of Jacqueline Thompson. Black Rep founder Ron Himes gives a great performance in the title role as Willy Loman. He juggles silent desperation between his fingertips as Willy's career bottoms out and dementia ravages his brain. And it's crazy to see it shaking him apart, right there in front of you, in private moments of doubt, shame and delusion, when it all seemed so harmless at first. In fact, the joshing nature of the first 80% of this production may help lure us in closer than ever to the raw power of Miller's story.
There is a sense of nobility in Willy's older son Biff, played by uber leading man Chauncy Thomas. He creates a sort of abashed psychological promontory, which gives him a greater height to fall from as they go hurtling toward the end: when a father's glowing flashbacks of senility finally collide with a son's anguished real-life memories. Christian Kitchens displays a troubling illusion of perpetual childhood in the role of younger brother Happy (and is a steady flywheel of comic energy). And Velma Austin is increasingly stoic playing the matriarch Linda, managing her money and her men, at least at first. I still can't tell if it's the actress or the playwright who gets more credit for the final scenes that rivet our attention on her. She makes herself one with Miller.
The show runs about three hours and fifteen minutes, but the impact will ring in your soul long after. The whole cast is excellent, including Jim Reed as the multi-faceted neighbor Charley, while Kevin Brown is maddening as the ghost of Willy's successful brother Ben. And Franklin Killian is playfully spoiled as Willy's young boss Howard. Then he's expertly comedic as a grumpy waiter. It's a perfect match of a warm and witty actor in two roles in an often lighthearted production. I mean, you could say the same thing about the other men in the cast. But then Willy and Biff have to make that big, horrific turn into tragedy.
All kidding aside, it really is as if a bomb went off in the play's final two scenes. Incomprehensible chaos bursts forth from simple human failings. And it all starts out in a harmless disguise: with just a smile and a shoeshine.
Black Repertory Theatre's Death of a Salesman runs through January 29, 2023, at the Edison Theatre, on the campus of Washington University, 6465 Forsyth Blvd., St. Louis MO. For tickets and information, please visit www.theblackrep.org.
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association