Review: ‘Death of a Salesman’ at San Jose Stage Company (***)

by Charles Kruger

Rating: ***
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

Jeffrey Brian Adams as Happy, Randall King as Willy, and Danny Jones as Biff in San Jose Stage Company's production of "Dearth of a Salesman". Photo credit: San Jose Stage Company.
Jeffrey Brian Adams as Happy, Randall King as Willy, and Danny Jones as Biff in San Jose Stage Company’s production of “Dearth of a Salesman”. Photo credit: San Jose Stage Company.
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

The Classics get revived because they are…. well… because they ARE classics. Very few critics would fail to agree that Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” is one of the most significant and masterful plays of the 20th century. Often revived, its popularity never seems to flag. Willy Loman is the ultimate anti-hero, a lovable loser, a man who adores his sons, his wife, his country, his vision and nevertheless gets it all tragically wrong. At his funeral (this is a tragedy and the hero must die), his friend says of Willy, “a salesman’s got to dream.” But it is Willy’s tragedy to have the wrong dreams. He stakes everything on being well-liked, a good guy, forsaking all other values. He is the original shallow bro and he and his family pay a terrible price for Willy’s lack of insight.

Miller’s play is widely recognized as a devastating condemnation of the American dream and capitalist values, but because of its deeply human emotional heart it is much more than a political piece. The Loman family — Willy and Linda, their sons Biff and Happy, and Willy’s ghostly brother Ben — are as real to us as any literary characters can be. Their confused love for one another is recognizably human in every culture and every generation. It is no accident that a Chinese production of “Death of a Salesman,” the flagship play about life under capitalism, was a huge success in communist Bejing with audiences reporting that Miller truly understood the Chinese people. Well, Miller truly understood humanity.

All of this means that any revival of “Death of a Salesman” carries a lot of weight on its shoulders. The problem, as with any classic, must be to make the old material fresh and new for the audience. At a minimum, the story must be told convincingly as if it has never been told before, or the production will fail. San Jose Stage Company’s production, capably directed by Kenneth Kelleher, certainly does not fail. It is straightforward and expert, intelligently and carefully realized. There are no surprising revelations here, but Miller’s play is delivered respectfully and capably, and, most importantly, movingly. The essence of tragedy is catharsis. The audience must identify with the hero and genuinely grieve his death with real tears. It would take a heart of stone not to cry for this Willy Loman and his tragic family.

Among its strengths is a carefully considered set design by Giulio Cesare Perrone, which utilizes projections to create the stifling effect of the apartment buildings surrounding the Loman home, as well as incorporating advertisements and motivational texts that reflect Willy’s shallow and barren philosophy of life. Among the actors, the two sons are particularly successful in creating a complex relationship. As Happy, Jeffrey Brian Adams brings unexpected depth to the character of a low life womanizer of a junior executive. Adams has been seen  in the Bay Area performing in musicals, notably as one of the Prince Charmings in SF Playhouse’s 2014 production of “Into The Woods.” As Happy, he reveals that he has fine dramatic chops to match his musical comedy skills. As Biff, Danny Jones is equally impressive,  capturing Biff’s combination of physical grace and emotional and ethical clumsiness. The two actors are impressive in playing the boys both as teenagers and as adults approaching middle age.

As their father, Willy Loman, Randall King (San Jose Stage Company’s Artistic Director) is entirely capable, most impressive in his final revelatory scene when he believes, at last, that he has found the way forward through his personal quagmire. Lucinda Hitchcock Cone brings gentle dignity and love to the role of Willy’s wife Linda, and certainly moves us with her delivery of the famous funeral speech.

The rest of the cast and the design team contribute capably to this overall fine and satisfying production.

“Death of a Salesman” plays at San Jose Stage Company through April 26, 2015. For further information, click here.

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“Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller, produced by San Jose Stage Company. Director: Kenneth Kelleher. Set Design: Giulio Cesare Perrone. Costume Design: Tanya Finkelstein. Light Design: Maurice Vercoutere. Sound Design/Composer: Cliff Caruthers.

Willy Loman: Randall King. Linda: Lucinda Hitchcock Cone. Happy: Jeffrey Brian Adams. Biff: Danny Jones. Bernard: Joey Pisacane. The Woman: Adrienne Herro. Charley: Michael Bellino. Uncle Ben: Kevin Blackton. Howard Wagner: Will Springhorn, Jr. Jenny: Courtney Hatcher. Stanley: Brandon Leland. Miss Forsythe: Ashley Garlick. Letta: Courtney Hatcher. 

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