Death of a Salesman's Willy Loman, the traveling salesman who loses his grip on reality, is a common sight on stages around the world. But Arthur Miller's celebrated 1949 play hasn't been performed in Madison for over 20 years. Director Richard Corley's decision to present Madison Repertory Theatre's version on a stark stage, allowing the language and performances to dominate, is a good one.
Brian Sidney Bembridge's abstract set consists of a shallow recessed area at center stage and rows of rectangular columns in the rear. The only ornate element is the flooring, which resembles the intricate wood marquetry in old homes. The spare use of props is also effective. Loman's sample cases are used as seating, headboards for beds, a car and, most significantly, a headstone.
Corley's casting and direction yield some stellar performances, some good ones and a few that are merely adequate. Roderick Peeples is powerful as Loman. It would be easy for an actor to deliver an overwrought performance in this challenging role, but Peeples' range and agility allow us to see convincing glimpses of the salesman in his prime as well as his decline. Peeples slips seamlessly between the many sides of Loman's character: at times a bully, then kind; smooth-talking, then pathetic. He skillfully reveals Loman's despair alongside his false bravado. Peeples wisely saves the upper register of his theatricality for the end of the play, as Loman's frantic attempts to leave something tangible behind, even if it's just vegetables in his backyard, bring the evening to its stunning climax.
DJ Howard is excellent as Charley, the closest thing to a friend that Loman has. Howard's comfort in the role emphasizes the relative ease in which Charley has moved through his life, in contrast to Loman.
Braden Moran's portrayal of prodigal son Biff grew on me as the play progressed, and he is truly impressive in the final scenes as he takes stock of himself and his father. When he says "we never told the truth for ten minutes in this house ," it's raw and devastating. David Wilson-Brown captures second son Happy's slick and disingenuous side.
A standout in a small role is William Bolz as Loman's boss. He is callous and self-important as he distractedly tinkers with a tape recorder while Loman pleads with him for a new position in the company.
There are some nice lighting effects throughout, used in combination with a fairly intricate, if not entirely successful, sound design. My favorite effect is a combination of sound and light that creates the sensation of being on a speeding subway car.
Thankfully, Corley and company don't try to reinvent the wheel here. Rather, they mount a skillful production that allows this American masterwork to shine. The intimacy of the staging allows us to see how well the play has stood the test of time.
Death of a Salesman, Presented by the Madison Repertory Theatre at the Overture Playhouse, through Oct. 14