It’s a sign of bravado (perhaps even a Willy Lomanesque conceit) for a struggling amateur-theatre troupe to open its season with an all-time-classic of the U.S. theatre.
In the years since 1949, when Arthur Miller penned Death of a Salesman – the story of one family’s tragic attempt at the American dream – it’s been dissected and analyzed, winning a Pulitzer Prize and repeated Tony Awards for its multiple Broadway revivals starring a pantheon of thespians in the role originated by Lee J. Cobb: George C. Scott, Dustin Hoffman, Brian Dennehy and, in 2012, Philip Seymour Hoffman.
In the White Rock Players’ Club production, we are introduced to Willy Loman by way of club president Fred Partridge, after the proud patriarch has been demonstrating telltale signs of age.
Willy and wife Linda (Jane Mantle) acknowledge, at least to each other, the struggles of simply paying their bills on his meagre travelling-salesman commissions. This is all the more heartbreaking, as the once-promising City of New York – indeed their country – seems to have boxed them in.
The return of prodigal-son Biff (Tom Gage) alongside his outwardly more-successful brother, Happy (Edwin Perez), completes the dysfunctional Loman-family dynamic, and sends Willy further into his dementia-laden spiral through the shrouds of his past.
I admit it was with trepidation that I entered the Coast Capital Playhouse, having been less inspired than some, two years earlier, by their heavy-handed version of another Miller classic, The Crucible, also directed by Ryan Mooney.
There are certainly risks in staging such a well-known tragedy as Salesman, particularly as the club has struggled in recent months to fill its seats (no more evident, sadly, than at the gala opening night last week).
The casting of Willy Loman could be seen as another – given Partridge’s greater focus, in recent years, behind the scenes – as Salesman would surely misfire without a commanding lead.
Fortunately, Partridge embodies Willy’s deluded arrogance as a father, and, later, his resentful pathos as he approaches the senior years, allowing nearly all of the supporting cast to complement his proficient performance.
The two sons, in particular, bring a naturalness to the dialogue that is rarely seen at this level of amateur theatre, especially during their brotherly exchanges. Gage’s Biff tests Willy’s emotions and memories, while Perez’s Happy selectively recreates his father’s positive outlook. Mantle, as Willy’s enabling wife, raises both our sympathy and our ire, showing Linda’s hapless struggle to help her delusional husband rediscover his previous deluded path.
Supporting characters add to the club’s triumph. Sean Malczewski impresses as serious-minded Bernard, most notably when we see the results of his studiousness; Josh Fuller plays two diverse smaller characters – employer Howard and waiter Stanley – that deliver, quite naturally, the tone needed in each case; and Ken Cross as Willy’s brother, Ben, and Heather-Jane Robertson as The Woman set the scenes’ respective moods with each of their definitive entrances.
Katherine Naylor and Krystle Hadlow also provide solid characterizations as Happy’s potential dining companions, though, admittedly, I missed the all-too-timely ‘working girl’ aspects of their roles.
Lighting (Guy Paterson) and sound design (Gordon Mantle) also deliver, as does the set (Eleanor Gibson), all adding multiple layers and dimensions, and adding filmic transitions rarely seen on this stage. And the period costumes (Laura McKenzie), set dec (Andrea Olund and Heather Harris) and props (Naomi Mitchell) properly supplement the proceedings.
Salesman isn’t without its minor miscues, none more evident than the unnecessarily on-the-nose sound effect and reaction to Willy’s last exit.
And as successful as Partridge is in finding his character’s voice, one might hope for a few more vocal variations as he delivers Willy’s more subtle mood shifts.
Likewise, as strong as all three ‘youth’ are as adults, their childlike energy could be tempered, if ever so slightly.
Lastly, Brian Wilson as Willy’s friend and foil, Charley, seemed to lack the clarity of his convictions, at least in the second night of the show’s run. Charley has worked hard for his success, whereas Willy puts his faith in a nice smile and a shoeshine – yet Charley still shields Willy from responsibility. A beautiful character on the page.
All in all, Mooney and producer Rebekah MacEwan have put on a polished production worthy of both its script and audience. It’s on stage at Coast Capital Playhouse (604-536-7535) until Oct. 24.