One of the most notable achievements of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre's artistic director Robert Hupp's adaption of "Death of a Salesman" is that it really shows why the American masterpiece is perfectly designed for the stage, rather than the silver screen. Arthur Miller's classic 1949 play -- winner of the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and several Tony Awards -- is clearly driven by its theatrical nature with a dialogue so genuine and poetic, that the characters should be showcased on a live stage where we, the audience, can recognize the true emotion, pain and frustration that they encounter.
With a strong cast led by the legendary Robert Walden, Carolyn Mignini, Avery Clark and Craig Maravich, this powerful drama really encapsulates the spirit and the attitudes of mid-century America while also tapping into the reality of today's world.
"Death of a Salesman," which opened last week, tells the story of Willy Loman (Walden) -- a down-and-out salesman who we see in the first act returning home after a failed sales trip to his wife Linda (Mignini). She tries to persuade him to ask his boss, Howard Wagner, to let him work in New York, instead of Boston, so that he won’t have to travel so far. While he passes this request off, he instead complains that Biff, his older son who has come back home to visit, has yet to make something of himself.
And that sets the precedent for the rest of the story. It's that constant conflict that resonates throughout the entire production where at times, it's a bit unnerving, but also captivating to watch.
What's really interesting is how flashbacks are interspersed throughout the entire story, giving the audience a chance to see life before things really changed for the worse. They are seamless and do a great job of showing the mental disintegration of Willy through his years as a salesman.
That slow disintegration is evident in several scenes where he is alone in the kitchen talking to himself, along with a big scene in the play when the sons take him out to eat. What's supposed to be a celebratory dinner after Biff's highly anticipated business meeting ends up not being such a celebratory dinner and it's here where you see the old salesman really start to unravel.
An elaborate two-story set resembling the modest home of the Lomans graces the entire stage, transporting you to an abode that reflected the post-war housing boom, outfitted with period-specific appliances, fixtures and decorations. Take for instance, the room of the two sons -- Biff (Clark) and Happy (Maravich) -- which features an old school pennant on the wall and red monogrammed blanket over Biff's bed. The kitchen is also decked out with the old-school refridgerator and kitchenware you'll find in that era.
And the costumes -- they fit so perfectly with the period of the story, particularly those flashbacks we see. Those moments are encompassed by throwing the ol' pigskin around around while Biff dons a simple red sweater with a single monogrammed letter of the high school he is attending, matched with dark plaid wide-leg pants and flashy new Conserve sneakers he likes to show off to the family.
Happy also shows the period with an undershirt, suspenders and distressed lace-up brown boots, along with Wally, who the audience sees wearing a silver three-piece suit a majority of the production, reflecting the simple and sophisticated style during those days.
As for the cast, Walden gives such a powerful performance in his main role as Willy that you feel every emotion he shows on stage -- his frustration with son Biff and feeling of inadequacy, the happiness when Biff tells him about a business proposal and the anger that rages on during fights with Biff and the tense meeting with his boss. You feel it all.
Mignini really lights up the stage with her passion as mother and wife Linda who tries to stay strong through Willy's difficult tenure and even brushes with death. And Clark, who returns to The Rep as Biff, is a force to be reckoned with. His strong-turned-tumultuous relationship with his father is felt in just about every scene.
What really takes the cake is the one of the final scenes where you see so much emotion from each character as they all reach their breaking point, especially Linda and Biff. Almost so, that it brought me to tears.
Bottom line: This strong and unified cast triumphs until the very end, carrying every powerful scene of the Miller's production. What's amazing is that the audience, regardless of background, will likely identify with one of the characters in some way, making the "Death of a Salesman" a true classic that still resonates today.
There's still time to see the show-- it will be running until May 12.
Purchase tickets for the remaining shows online here, call (501) 378-0405 or visit the box office, 601 Main St., Little Rock.