This evening of theater promises so much. How can it not? It's Arthur Miller's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Death of a Salesman" as conceived by TheatreWorks, one of the premier theater companies in town.
And while there are some combustible moments, some instances of palpable emotion and on-the-edge-of-your-seat drama on the third night of the three-week run, director Murray Ross' production was surprisingly adrift - in Miller's earnest language and relationships that fail, for the most part, to really connect - especially in Act I.
As the lights come up, a man shuffles toward his darkened Brooklyn home. Willy Loman's (Christopher Lowell) shoulders slump from the weight of the world stowed in his two worn suitcases.
At 63, life as a traveling salesman has turned into a crippling series of failures. Not that Loman (low man, get it?) acknowledges it. More and more, he takes refuge in a rosily remembered past. The happy wife, the promising sons and the wealthy, self-made brother Ben (Tom Paradise), who Willy hardly knew.
As they have all their life, wife Linda (Sue Bachman) and youngest son Happy (Jesse Wilson) have done their best to prop up Willy's memories and pie-in-the-sky plans. When his eldest son, Biff (Josh Sienkiewicz), returns from an aimless series of roustabout jobs in the West, Willy and Biff ricochet from love to anger, disappointment to hope, and the wheels are set in motion.
Routinely referred to as an American masterpiece, this epic work explores the quiet dilemma of the America male, including notions of manhood, the measure of success and the potentially corrosive nature of the American Dream. "Death of a Salesman," which has seen five Broadway revivals and three Tony Awards for Best Revival, remains deeply relevant, even 64 years after its Broadway debut. "It's a play about a family," Miller said.
Unfortunately, this performance stumbles, especially in the beginning.
Lines were fumbled. Often. Actors also repeatedly launched into their dialogue too early, cutting off other actors and creating a rush to get from the top to the bottom of the exchange. That suggests players not yet comfortable enough to really listen to each other, a practice that's fundamental to creating the illusion of reality. And while the script is both poignant and exciting, I found myself largely unaffected until a pyrotechnic scene in the final 30 minutes of the show. (For the record, the audience clearly enjoyed the production, including my companion.)
Every actor struggled to focus their character and connect with the action - with the exception of Paradise as the monumental Ben and Ashley Crockett in a small but spot-on role as Loman's girl on the side. The characters, rather than sharing a world, existed in their own bubbles in Act I.
Well-known for his portrayal of Benjamin Franklin, Lowell (with the help of Katherine Nowacki's fine costumes) certainly looked the part of the Willy Loman. But for much of the show, Willy wasn't home. Lowell's blurred rendering could be argued as appropriate for the character, but in Act I, at least, it drained the tension at the core of action. Happily, though, by the time Biff begins to dismantle the family lies and deceptions in Act II, Willy had arrived.
When New York-based actor Sienkiewicz begs Willy to abandon his expectations of Biff - "Pop, I'm nothing! I'm nothing, Pop! Can't you understand that? There's no spite in it any more. I'm just what I am, that's all." - I was completely engaged. Like Lowell, Sienkiewicz came into his own when the action came to a head in Act II.
Bachman's Linda gained some dimension after the intermission, her hand wringing and mindless devotion to Willy giving way to desperation of a woman trying to right a half sunk boat by herself.
Wilson leaned hard on the slick veneer of Happy's womanizing and preening vanity. He was entertaining, but at this early point in the run, he never realized the complexity of Miller's character.
"DEATH OF A SALESMAN"
Playwright: Arthur Miller
Cast: Christopher Lowell, Sue Bachman, Jesse Wilson, Josh Sienkiewicz, Sol Chavez, Ashley Crockett, Tom Paradise
Director: Murray Ross
Running time: 3 hours, including one 15-minute intermission
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturday and Nov. 9, 4 p.m. Sundays, runs through Nov. 10
Where: Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theater, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, 3955 Regent Circle,
Tickets: $35, $15 for 15 and younger, free UCCS students, no kids under 5; 255-3232, theatreworkscs.org.
Something else: Prologue series lectures tied to this play include Pulitzer Prize-winning playwriter Paula Vogel ("How I Learned to Drive") at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 4; and Tony-winning lighting designer Brian MacDevitt at 2:30 p.m. Nov. 10
- What did you think of TheatreWorks' production of "Death of a Salesman"? Send your thoughts to tracy.mobley firstname.lastname@example.org and we may use them in a future edition of GO!