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Arguably, the greatest play written by an American in the 20th century is Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” Studied in public schools all over the nation, it is a modern tragedy constructed using the rules established by the ancient Greeks, yet seems at the same time an elemental tale of American machismo. The gradual unraveling of Willy Loman has become absolutely iconic as the reverse side of the American dream.
Now a new, rather stylized production of this great work is on the boards at the Covina Center for the Performing Arts. Director Steve Julian has made some interesting choices, some of which create a fluid tale, some of which are a bit more questionable. In the end, the production doesn’t always come through, but isn’t awful either.
A disturbingly telling moment comes even before the play begins, when Julian comes on the P.A. system to explain the show to the audience. Is this an assumption that the audience can’t “get” the play (which includes flashbacks) without help? Certainly a play commonly read by high school students can’t be that tough. The play then starts with an interesting, shadow-like animation – a portrait of defeat. It never reappears. Neither does any other symbolic or animated enhancement, leaving that first impression (and it is the very first thing you see) as an odd outlier.
The intensity of the production proves important, and a lot of the success of any production of “Death of a Salesman” hangs squarely on the shoulders of the man playing Willy. In this case, Jody St. Michael makes an interesting work of the part. Physically, he is far more diminutive than those who have often played Willy, but that can work – actually makes a lot of sense, played the way St. Michael sees him. Unfortunately, he starts the evening already vibratingly anxious and stutteringly depressive, leaving Willy no place to go. The growth toward abject despair proves elemental to the play. Here it cannot happen.
Supporting St. Michael, Jill Gerber makes Willy’s wife a woman gentle wisdom, who sees the train wreck coming even as she remains unheard on any deep level by the others in her world. Shawn Vena plays Willy’s jock son rather all in one key, his deflation somewhat harder to believe than his teenaged bravado. Chad Goodwin makes really excellent work of the younger, often ignored son. His move toward instant gratification makes as much sense as in any version I have seen.
These folks are backed by a solid cast. Standouts include Mike Johnson as Willy’s good-hearted neighbor, Andrew Batiz, particularly effective as the neighbor’s once-nerdy and now successful son, and Candida Orosco as the woman who changes not only Willy’s world but his son’s as well.
Maureen Weiss has designed a stark, angular and bare-bones set which works well in this equally stark tale, allowing the pacing to move forward without interruption for time or place shifts. Linda Vick has found evocatively 50s costumes, though all the ties are very 70s.
In short, “Death of a Salesman” is inarguably a great play. At Covina one can see it on its feet – something comparatively rare. Still, one wonders what would have happened if the director had both trusted his audience, and completed the interesting symbolic vision he began. As it is, with Willy played mostly in one key and an underlying atmosphere of “here – I’ve made this obvious for you,” it seems to miss some of what the play actually had to say.
What: “Death of a Salesman” When: Through November 4, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday Where: Covina Center for the Performing Arts, 104 N. Citrus Ave. in Covina How Much: $23 and $33 Info: (626) 331-8133 ext. 1 or http://www.covinacenter.com