On Theater: 'Death' comes to life at SCR

When theater connoisseurs gather to discuss the greatest plays or playwrights of all time, chances are that Arthur Miller and "Death of a Salesman" will be found at or near the top of most lists.

South Coast Repertory has produced this American classic twice in the past 40-plus years, and now, as the company embarks on its 50th anniversary season, artistic director Marc Masterson has reimagined this highly honored drama as a vehicle for a cast composed almost entirely of African-American performers — quite acceptable, since punctured dreams and thwarted expectations transcend color lines.

Stepping into the well-worn shoes of the play's central figure, Willy Loman, is the powerful and charismatic actor Charlie Robinson, who has mesmerized SCR audiences in past productions of "Fences" and "Jitney," among others. Robinson dials down his well-honed stage command to paint Willy as a broken, ineffectual "road man," working on commission and borrowing from friends to feed his family.

This interpretation finds the veteran actor moving tenuously through various fits and starts as he interacts with his current life as well as the past and, scarily, in hallucinogenic moments with his late, more courageous brother Ben, who lived the life Willy only could imagine. While this might be taken as an actor's indecisiveness, in actuality it is brilliance in connecting a fiercely troubled character with his audience.

Robinson receives exceptionally strong support, particularly from Kim Staunton as his doggedly loyal wife, Linda, who realizes the agony her husband is experiencing and strives to shore him up as much as possible. Her final scene is calculated to bring tears to the viewers' eyes, no matter how familiar they may be with this play.

Willy's two sons, the contentious Biff (Chris Butler) and the supportive Happy (Larry Bates), provide striking points of contrast between their teenage selves and their flawed present-day characters. Butler's faceoffs with his father after discovering the older man's philandering are especially potent and discomforting, while Bates' bluff and bravado underscore a future Willy Loman in the making.

James A. Watson Jr. nettles Willy as his contentious neighbor and father of a teenage nerd (Tobie Windham) who rises to a position of importance as the Loman boys flail and fail. Windham may be channeling an overdose of TV's Urkel in his youthful guise, but the contrast presented is quite effective.

Tyler Pierce is chilling as the young, white business owner refusing to cut Willy some slack in his old age. Celeste Den and Tracey A. Leigh enjoy lighter segments as the comforting women Willy encounters on his travels.

Gregg Daniel delivers a robust blast from the past as Willy's adventurer brother, perpetually running out of time as he beckons Willy to join him. Christopher Rivas has some nice "normal" moments as an amicable restaurant waiter.

The imposing, abstract, brown-hewed setting by Michael B. Raiford hardly suggests a tiny, cramped house squeezed between two high-rise buildings, though it accommodates the action splendidly. Holly Poe Durbin's period costumes are quite effective, while Brian J. Lilienthal lights the stage with an eerie glow shifting from present to past. Its climactic thrust is devastating.

"Death of a Salesman," which premiered in 1949 to tumultuous acclaim, certainly deserves its lofty place in America's theatrical history. Masterson's riveting revival superbly brings this classic into focus at South Coast Repertory.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "Death of a Salesman"

Where: South Coast Repertory, Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 p.m. Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays (dark Sept. 21); 2:30 p.m. matinees Saturdays and Sundays until Sept. 29

Cost: Tickets start at $22

Information: (714) 708-5555 or http://www.scr.org

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