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At Trinity – ‘Death of a Salesman’ is more alive and vital than ever

Review by Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.

Debuting in 1949 and performed countless times ever since everywhere from Broadway’s best houses to community theaters in the hinterlands, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman has lost none of its power, nor any of its relevance. At least not if you judge it by Trinity Repertory Company’s current production.

Beginning September 28 and running through November 26, the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play is alternating on stage with Dominique Morriseau’s Skeleton Crew, which had its first performances beginning in 2014. Both shows are performed in the Sarah and Joseph Dowling, Jr. Theater, downstairs at the Lederer Theater Center, 201 Washington St., Providence. Trinity stalwart Brian McEleney directs Death of a Salesman.

The play does not to feel dated and is still compelling because, while it reflects the age in which it is set, it is not about its times. Rather, it centers on the eternal needs of the human heart in any era.

Willy Loman must preserve the integrity of his fragile ego and the self-deluding constructs which support it. For him they all relate to accomplishment, to achieving the American dream. He defines himself by his work. An aging mediocre traveling salesman in decline, he has convinced himself he is much more than that. His wife Linda understands his vulnerability.

She knows he has contemplated suicide as his income dwindles and his prospects diminish. She realizes he can only go on by clinging to the fiction he invents, one of returning to glory days that never were.

Father to two sons, Biff and Happy, who have disappointed him with their lack of talent and material success, he is no less ready to accept their flaws than his own.

Happy is a glib womanizer who goes along to get along, a cartoon-like cognate of Willy at his most shallow, all hogwash and flattery, saying what he thinks people want to hear, lacking any integrity. Willy by comparison has too much respect for a self he can’t make real.

More than anyone, Biff understands how much clay Willy really has in his feet. A football star in high school who hero-worshipped his father, Biff has been a failure in most other aspects of his life. He lost a college scholarship when he couldn’t pass math.

Despairing, he travels from New York to Boston where Willy is on a sales trip to tell him. He surprises his father with a woman in his room. Instantly, he loses respect for him and leaves home. He careens from job to job, never succeeding, always punishing himself for what he knows. Willy’s self-deception has the whole family locked into his downward spiral. Like some pathetic Huck Finn, all Biff desires is to escape to the west, the outdoors. In a grotesque echo of this symbol of renewal, near play’s end Willy fumbles trying to plant seeds in his concrete-encased backyard.

The past and present have become all of a piece for him, and we witness him mixing memories of long ago, when hope was greener, with the present when, fighting the bleakness of rejection by his boss, he rails at everyone. He even dismisses his friend Charley, who quietly lends him money and offers him a sinecure of a job that Willy’s false pride will allow him to accept.

When he no longer can fool himself, and sees that he isn’t fooling anyone else any more, he kills himself, but not before he has a reconciliation of sorts with Biff, who declares his independence from the suffocating dream of success. Accepting himself as he is just might be the antidote to what afflicted his father.

From the time he appears until his last moments on stage Stephen Berenson commands this production. His performance as Willy Loman is a riveting tour de force unrivalled at Trinity since the days of Richard Kneeland, Ed Hall, and Richard Jenkins. This is said without taking anything away from the many fine actors in the company, including this play’s director, Brian McEleney. Stephen Berenson runs the gamut of emotions, exquisitely interpreting every element of texture in the role. He is more than immense. He soars.

Phyllis Kay demonstrates the full range of her talent which is magnificently on display here. As Willy’s wife, she calibrates her responses to him perfectly. Her work is more than outstanding. It is superb.

Matt Lytle, a third year student in the Brown/Trinity Rep MFA program, does fine work as Biff, as do fellow third year students Billy Hutto as Happy and Tyler Herman as Bernard, a son to Charley and boyhood friend to Biff.

Fred Sullivan, Jr. plays Charley at exactly the right pitch, suggesting the depth of friendship he feels for an outwardly unappreciative Willy. He provides just the necessary amount of ballast to their scenes together. Excellent work.

In the roles of Willy’s heartless boss, Howard, and Willy’s uncle Ben, who comes to him in dream-like sequences, Mauro Hantman is exceptional. Rachel Dulude does well as the woman with whom Willy is having an affair.

In small supporting roles Shenyse LeAnna Harris, who plays a woman Happy picks up at a restaurant, and Will Adams, who is the waiter, do good work.