Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” defines the finest in the American Theatre.
We saw Ford Rainey play Willy Loman in Trinity Rep’s 1979 production and have seen others tackle the difficult role. Let me tell you: You won’t find a better portrayal of the tragic character then Stephen Berenson, one of Trinity Rep’s true treasures. With a shaven head, a little make-up and a posture that defines a beaten man, Berenson is Willy Loman.
“Salesman” is a director’s challenge, developing an environment that allows the audience to follow Willy through the current realities of his life and those ghosts from his past that appear during critical moments. Who better than another Trinity treasure, Brian McEleney, to direct Berenson and a talented cast of veterans and newcomers.
Set in Brooklyn in 1947 and performed in the round – sort of – “Death of a Salesman” brings us back to that difficult time in America with vintage costumes, language and customs of the day. Take away all of that and poor Willy could have been a guy at Benny’s who lost his job.
While this is without question the tale of a broken traveling salesman whose job has become obsolete, it is also the tale of a family that has lived a failed dream.
Phyllis Kay, in one of her finest roles at Trinity, plays a patient wife to her underachieving husband in spite of the subtle verbal abuse and neglect she has put up with. In one scene, where Willy is trying to influence his two sons, he cuts her down at every turn while she remains supportive.
When you think of Willy Loman, you usually think of a tired old man who has been passed by in the game of life. Berenson shows us another side of him in the way he treats his wife and sons.
Matt Lytle, a Brown/Trinity third-year student, plays son Biff, the 34-year-old who struggles through life with low esteem and lower ambition. How much did Willy contribute to this? Billy Hutto, also a third year student, plays son Happy, whose goal in life is to be liked but has his own set of weaknesses.
There are a number of memorable scenes in the classic play. The one that grabbed me most was Willy’s confrontation with his boss (Mauro Hantman) as he begs and grovels for his job. Hantman is haunting both in this role and as Uncle Ben, the success story of the family, who appears, in reality or fantasy, as a sharp contrast to Willy’s situation.
The play is a bit long, as they were in that period of American theatre, but you will never be bored. Whether or not you have seen it before, if you love good theatre, you will want to see “Death of a Salesman” as it is done in repertory through November 26, with Dominique Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew,” and draw comparisons between the classic and the new play. Call 351-4242 for dates and reservations.