Stage Review: Death of a Salesman – Willy Loman’s legacy lives on

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It perhaps isn’t surprising that Death of a Salesman might make an appearance as we slowly move out of these tough economic times.  But what is surprising, at least as evidenced on the Vancouver Playhouse stage last night, is Arthur Miller’s “anatomy of the American dream” still wields such great power.

Do a quick search on Google and you’ll find a plethora of study guides, essays, research, summaries, quotes and other material about this iconic American play.  But for all the analysis being done, for me it is a story of love.  So much love in fact that our protagonist is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for it.  And that central message of love spilled over into the audience last night as we watched Willy Loman and his family struggling to survive and the pressures we place on ourselves and those closest to us in achieving our dreams.

Ask an expert to list what they would consider to be the greatest roles in Western theatre and invariably you get Hamlet and King Lear.  Alongside Shakespeare you more often than not get Ricky Roma from Glengarry Glen Ross and Willy Loman from Death of Salesman.  It isn’t difficult to see why Willy would make that list with so much of Miller’s tragedy hinging on the portrayal of this pathetic hero.  In this Playhouse production, Tom McBeath rises to the challenge of Willy Loman.  We watch as McBeath easily moves from the ferocity of a driven man, to the wild-eyed frenzy as he looks for options, to someone who is simply so tired he sees ending it all as his only way out.  This is a calculated performance full of realism and such intense heartbreak.

Death of a Salesman
The cast of the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company presentation of Death of a Salesman.

As the rest of the Loman clan, the trio of actors in these primary roles is also up to the play’s challenges.  My heart also ached as Donna Belleville’s fiercely supportive Linda struggled under Willy’s drive and who’s final words of “we’re free” echoed through the house with both its intended lament and its celebration.

As the two sons Biff and Happy, Bob Frazer and Kevin James, also do fine work.  Frazer, who gets the meatier of the two roles, is particularly powerful and matched perfectly to McBeath’s Willy in their final showdown.  Jame’s “Hap” is full of wide-eyed enthusiasm that we know the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree.

Pam Johnson’s set design mimics Willy’s shattered mind perfectly with its missing pieces and its view into both the façade and the structure holding it up.  Gerald King’s lighting design easily moved us from the various fragments of reality and memory.

All under the watchful eye of director John Cooper this classic tragic tale is brought to life with the powerful beauty of love but with a pain that lingers long after the show ends.  Willy Loman’s legacy lives on.

4 out 5 Stars Death of a Salesman

By Arthur Miller.  Directed by John Cooper.  A Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company presentation.  On stage at the Vancouver Playhouse through March 5, 2011.

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