Review: San Jose Stage puts forward a strong ‘Death of a Salesman’

(L to R) Happy (Jeffrey Brian  Adams), WIlly (Randall King), and Biff (Danny Jones) enjoy happier times in "Death of a Salesman" at San Jose Stage. (Photo by Dave Lepori)

(L to R) Happy (Jeffrey Brian Adams), WIlly (Randall King), and Biff (Danny Jones) enjoy happier times in “Death of a Salesman” at San Jose Stage. (Photo by Dave Lepori

The opening, iconic image is haunting.

Willy Loman stands at attention, facing his front door, the weight of whatever is in those suitcases pulling him down towards the earth. He stands for a moment, shoulders slumped despondently, and then proceeds into his house, preparing to start the final chapter, the denouement of his life.

It is powerful foreshadowing, this tableau that takes the audience on this journey with everyman Willy Loman, the principal character in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” The show is produced with exquisite detail at San Jose Stage Company through Sunday, April 26th.

Miller’s powerful script pulls no punches, a script that achieved perfection with 1949’s Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Tony Award for best play. Director Ken Kelleher, assisted greatly by Scenic Designer Giulio Cesare Perrone and Lighting Designer Maurice Vercoutere, has laid out a canvas that places the audience inside the mind of Willy, a complicated mind full of crippling pride and thunderous passion for his family and his work. And while I may have found the fourth wall breaking distracting at times, his production has hit a multitude of wonderful notes.

Willy (a sharp and energetic Randall King) is starting to break down. He returns home from a cancelled sales trip, and proceeds to share with his latest struggles with his wife Linda (a tender portrayal by Lucinda Hitchcock Cone). He recognizes that people don’t take to him like they used to. He drives 700 miles and comes home with nothing to show for it. And he has a secret that Linda knows about, which devastates her.

Further complicating matters is the fact that their two sons, Happy (Danny Jones) and Biff (Jeffrey Brian Adams), a couple of wanderers who never seem to stick with anything, are back in their old beds, sharing their big dreams, speaking about the greatness of “The Loman Brothers.”

Where this production gets so much right is the flow. The play moves seamlessly in and out of space, both mental and physical. The play also moves beautifully in and out of the space of Willy’s mind. A warm and gentle laugh from Linda quickly turns into a sexy and mysterious laugh from a woman. The stockings Linda sits and sews are in sharp contrast to the same stockings that the young and seductive Miss Forsythe (Ashley Garlick) wears, stockings that are immaculate and fresh.

The Stage’s production features solid performances, interpretations that must be at the forefront of any production of Miller’s classic. King, who does a masterful job with minutiae, leads those performances. Watch how he does the simplest of tasks – making a sandwich with cheese whip, hoeing in the garden, sitting down to chat. The many tasks that King has to execute as Willy are each taken on with the finest detail, a specificity that proves to be heartwarming in some moments and heartbreaking in many others. He is pure blowhard, pure enabler and pure pathos all in one.

An absolute scene-stealer is Jones, who does so much great work in a rangy role. It is his discoveries that set him apart, the jerk jock that bullies pencil-necked geek Bernard (Joey Pisacane) yet a boy who makes the most painful of discoveries about the supposed greatness of his dad, and the unbearable disgrace of what his own life has become . Biff’s is a life full of promise cut down by reading his own press clippings. A football star that could do no wrong, math class be damned.

Adams certainly has the look and feel of the narcissistic, ironically named Happy, who measures success in female conquests, delivering some of the cruelest lines with razor-sharp zing.

The tight cast is well-suited for their roles. Cone is outstanding in many moments, with her strongest work coming in the tenderest of scenes. She is Willy’s greatest cheerleader, a woman who reminds her boys that Willy may not go down in the annals of great, historic men. But the virtues he stand for cannot be ignored, a man who now shamefully works on commission like a beginner.

San Jose Stage ensemble member Will Springhorn, Jr. plays a strong Howard, a man tasked with delivering horrible news to Willy after he has given his life to selling. Michael Bellino’s Charley is a beautiful foil for Willy, a good, honest and successful man who works tirelessly to allow Willy to keep his pride, even when Willy may not deserve it. And Willy’s brother Ben, played by Kevin Blackton is haunting, his big delicious voice reminding Willy of everything he, or his sons, have not become.

In Sophocles’ famous play, Oedipus Rex thunders over anyone who attempts to take away his kingdom of Thebes. And as fate would have it, his willingness to walk around blind to the truth pushes him into exile. Willy Loman is a modern version of a tragic hero such as Oedipus. Yet, also just like Oedipus, Willy is a good man, loyal to his family, loves his wife, but can’t get out of his own way. We are reminded of this in the most painful of ways throughout the play, yet a single line that Willy delivers while fighting tears crystalizes his pain, a line that always, always brings me to my own tears:

“Charley, you’re the only friend I got. Isn’t that a remarkable thing?”

San Jose Stage Company presents “Death of a Salesman”
Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Ken Kelleher
Through Sunday, April 26th
The Word: A beautifully executed concept lends itself to a strong production of Miller’s classic tragedy about the pitfalls of pursuing the American dream.
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes including one 15-minute intermission
San Jose Stage Company
490 S. First Street
San Jose, CA
Tickets range from $20 – $65
For tickets, call (408) 283-7142 or visit www.thestage.org

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