A Utah Theater Review by Jennifer Mustoe
I have given myself some time to mull over last night’s performance of Death of a Salesman at The Grand Theater in Salt Lake City, and I’m finding myself just as challenged in putting my thoughts and feelings into words. You see, I’m an author/editor as well as an actress, so seeing this remarkable piece is thrumming not only my theatrical sense, but my interest in it as a literary work. I took my high school English teacher husband, who is also a sometimes actor with me, so our conversation on the way home was riddled with both aspects as well.
However, I’m getting ahead of myself. If you read nothing else of this review, understand this: Death of a Salesman is not to be missed. And you young folks out there, get your tails to see it. The audience was average age around 60+. There is something – a lot of good things – to be said about seeing a classic that has nothing that resembles a car chase or a perky musical number in it. Death of a Salesman is timeless and spans all generations. Okay, I am stepping off my soapbox. Perhaps temporarily.
Let me tell you about The Grand Theater first. It is now on my bucket list of Places to Perform. What a gorgeous, well-preserved, proper theater. Spacious, clean, restored – it is a marvel. There is even a balcony. (I’m sort of squealing that last bit of information. I love me a balcony.)
If you’re unfamiliar with the story, Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller is about Willy Lowman, a salesman, his dysfunctional life in his profession, in his marriage, as a father, as a neighbor, and as a human being. He is the tragic hero, and I use that term in its most literary sense, as Willy is no hero as far as being a nice guy. He is not. He lives in a fantasy world he created to deny his own failures, has passed that poison onto his children, and has lived a completely selfish life. His lover (one of many, I believe, though my husband didn’t agree) actually calls him selfish and she is right.
The set, designed by Keven Myhre, is sparse and all white. I can see how a detailed set would have detracted from the characters, and I liked the levels of the structures. It served more as a backdrop than a place you’d actually want to be, and this is a message in and of itself. Would anyone want to actually live in the Lowman’s home? I wouldn’t, for many reasons. That it was white was interesting to me. It looked clean and stark and I felt it was counterpoint to the darkness and complexity that lurked in the Lowman home.
The sound by Joe Killian was perfect. Haunting music played in the background and body mics that not only were almost indiscernible, which were not too loud and not too quiet.
Amanda Reiser’s costumes were very effective. Willy stayed in his suit the whole time, the uniform of a good salesman. He did take off his shoes and put on his slippers at home, but kept his tie on all the time. Older son Biff, a former football star whose own laziness and foolish choices (which in my opinion was spurred on by his father) kept him from going to college. In the flashback scenes, he wore a letterman’s sweater whose bright red showed youth, vibrancy and an enthusiastic hope for the future. His bright white high tops were a literary device, and are part of the character Miller scripted for Biff. His clothing from the present (which took place in the late 40s) was casual, not the suit of his father, and showed Biff’s preference to work outside on farms and ranches, staying far away from the city and his oppressive father. Hap as a younger boy wore a sweater and slacks, clothes for moving, as Hap is always jumping around, like a satellite to his father whom he adores and his brother who he admires. Linda, Willy’s long-suffering wife, wore house dresses and mended stockings, the stockings being another metaphor by Miller. The floozy women, for lack of a better term, had the flashiest clothes and stood out as the outsiders they were. Other characters wore costumes appropriate for them.
Willy Loman, played by Richard Edward Scott, is so pathetic, so frantic, so discordant. Scott’s portrayal is absolutely spot on, with gestures, body language, voice pitch. We see Willy’s rather quick descent, after a lifetime of preparation, into madness, despair, and his final (and maybe only) sacrifice for his family. Willy says often that to be well-liked is the key to being a great salesman, but sadly, he knows in his heart that nobody likes him because he doesn’t like himself. It is remarkably difficult to play a protagonist that is thoroughly unlikeable, who makes us uncomfortable, but Scott does this as it should be done – all out. If you play someone nobody likes, make sure nobody likes him. Scott succeeded, and then some.
Anita Booher as Linda Lowman is the most complex character. On the one hand, she is rather timid, loving, and supportive. But she is also strongly passionate about her husband, even or perhaps because he is obviously losing it. She defends him against her grown sons, and at one point agrees with Biff that he should never come home if he can’t get along with his father, something that I, as a mother, cannot begin to understand. It appears that Linda knows that Willy is not well-liked, and she will like him, no matter what. I pondered whether she knew of his affair(s), and still am not sure. Booher was perfect as Linda, showing such emotion in even the smallest of gestures. I liked her and hated her. She seemed so wimpy and yet so passionate. Booher has stolen my heart as an actress and I see myself following her in her career from now on.
Biff, played by Daniel Beecher, again was played with such passion and pain. Biff’s decision to get out of the city and away from Willy was poignantly portrayed by Beecher. I spoke to him after the show and praised him for his ability to cry and make the audience feel his pain when he discovers the truth about his father. I found Biff completely believable and for me, the character that resonated for me the most.
Hap, played by Rusty Bringhurst, was brilliant. I saw Bringhurst in the Off Broadway Theater’s Charlie’s Aunt last summer and became a huge fan of his comedic acting. I was pleased to see that Rusty is also a brilliant dramatic actor, which isn’t always the case. Hap (Happy) has turned out just like Willy, with his slick suits and delusions of grandeur and womanizing. I love Rusty, but not a fan of Hap, and that is as it should be. The synergy and connection between Beecher and Bringhurst was so flawless, it was completely convincing that they were brothers.
The other women in the play, the floozies as I called them, caused me the most trouble. Not because of their acting. No, Alexis Boss, Maggie Goertzen and Elizabeth Golden were amazing. But it was Miller’s portrayal of them that bothered me. The women in the show fell into two camps: the loving, long-suffering wife, or the floozies. I realize in the late 40s, being a career woman wasn’t the norm as it is today, but it jarred me a little.
The other three characters, Charley, played by David Hanson, and his son Bernard, played by Stein Erickson, were the likeable characters in the play, and perfect contrasts to Willy and his boys. Stanely, the waiter, played by JayC Stoddard, was sweet to Willy, showing him compassion when the world had already rejected Willy. I liked all three of them (hooray!) and all of them did splendid jobs in these roles that caused the play not to completely tip into depression.
My sincere hat is off to director Mark Fossen. The play was so seamless, I know as an actress it was the director’s careful work that caused such an experience to come about. He has such movement, and then such stillness, in the characters. He obviously got into the mind of Miller when he brought such depth to such a difficult, painful piece.
As I said at the beginning of this review, please do yourself a favor and go see Death of a Salesman. My only criticism is that there weren’t half enough people in the theater. This performance deserves sold out shows.