Death Comes to Life On Pear Avenue

By Ande Jacobson

(Originally appeared on Facebook on Saturday, February 26, 2011)

Arthur Miller’s iconic play, Death of a Salesman, is a slice of Americana, in some ways ageless, in some ways married to the time in which it was written. A tragedy packed with emotion that should take the audience through Willy Loman’s hopes and dreams for himself and his family, and ultimately, his deterioration and final demise. The story mixes “present day”, which is the post World War II era, with memories and imagination, nay, hallucinations of the past creeping into the present as Willy’s life spirals out of control.

Ray Renati, director of Pear Avenue’s production of Miller’s classic, expertly utilizes the intimate venue, a mere 39 seats, to full effect. Renati’s staging brings the audience into the Loman home on Ron Gasparinetti’s set consisting of a kitchen and two bedrooms, one at floor level, the other raised. The cast smoothly transforms these into an office, a hotel room, and a restaurant with minimal prop changes, and offstage action hints at a cellar, football field, and street. Renati further intrigues us with entrances from all possible vantage points, on stage, and through the house to great effect. Judicious use of recorded music acts to set the mood, as well as covers the quick scene changes between locations in place and time.

Led by Don DeMico’s Willy Loman and his long suffering wife, Jackie O’Keefe’s Linda Loman, the cast of 10 expertly tell the story with great emotional impact. DeMico captures the essence of Willy Loman, floating between a present he doesn’t quite understand while haunted by the ghosts of his past. His performance has great intensity, his mannerisms at times manic as his mood shifts from fond remembrance to panic and despair.

Willy’s sons, Biff and Happy, portrayed by Jeff Clarke and Jeffrey Adams respectively, along with their neighbor and cousin Bernard, played by Michael Rhone have the difficult task to seamlessly contrast the present young men in their mid-30s, back to their high school days. Clarke, Adams, and Rhone carry this off convincingly, and as part of the story, effectively trade places, although it would give away too much to say any more on that. To effect this illusion, they all have some lightning fast costume changes to negotiate, and with only a couple of slight imperfections on opening night, they pull this off.

Bernard’s father Charley, played by Larry Raboy, is a sharp contrast to DeMico’s Loman. While DeMico is intense, Raboy isn’t, he’s the calm, softer presence, trying to be there to comfort. At times Raboy is overshadowed, but he stays in character, the steadfast defender, solely in the present.

Willy’s brother Ben, played by Alex Shafer, lives only in Willy’s memory, a ghost reminding him of what could have been. Shafer brings this to “life” entering from the house, his resonant voice of authority reminding Willy of what could have been had Willy taken the opportunity to follow him in years past. Shafer, DeMico, and Raboy have a nicely staged scene juxtaposing past and present as Willy plays cards with Charley while debating with his long-deceased brother.

The cast is rounded out by Sarah Griner and Kerry Michelle Smith playing women from the collective male Lomans’ past and present, and Lance Fuller as both a waiter, and as Willy’s current boss who adds to Willy’s problems.

The story takes many turns along the way, but builds to the penultimate scene, a confrontation within the Loman immediate family, during which reality descends, a tear-jerker moment which, from the sounds in the house, had the desired audience impact on opening night. Being a tragedy, the final ending is predictable, and well played.

Jocelyn Squires’ lighting design, and Ann Kuchins’ period-perfect costume choices add nicely to the experience, which is well worth the trip.

Death of a Salesman continues through 20 March 2011 at the Pear Avenue Theatre, 1220 Pear Avenue, Unit K, Mountain View, CA 94043. The theatre has open seating, but the doors don’t open until 20 minutes before curtain, so for theatre, as in life, timing is everything.

See http://www.thepear.org/ for more information.

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