Wright State University opens its 37th season with an emotionally compelling production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” the 1949 Pulitzer Prize-winning tragedy about the downward spiral of a hapless breadwinner and his hopelessly dysfunctional family.
Guest artist Scott Stoney of the Human Race Theatre Company – who co-directed and appeared in the fantastic WSU/Human Race regional premiere of “August: Osage County” last season – simply delivers one of his most electrifying performances as the iconic Willy Loman, the terribly flawed patriarch wallowing in the depths of despair whose specific inability to salvage the past and reshape his murky future fuels the gripping potency within this three-hour memory play. From the moment Stoney sluggishly steps into the spotlight with two suitcases and an exasperated weariness in his eyes, Willy’s incredibly multifaceted persona captivates with aplomb. Without resorting to histrionics or detrimentally appearing larger-than-life, Stoney consistently produces visceral shockwaves as Willy’s prickly stubbornness, volatile uproars and heartbreaking regret palpably connect without letting go. However, it’s not just the flashy, intense scenes that are impactful. Late in Act Two, in a sublime, tear-jerking moment conceived by Greg Hellems in his impressive straight play directorial debut, Stoney gently reciprocates a loving embrace that speaks volumes in advance of Willy’s subsequent epiphany. It is a touching hallmark of this production and an image you’ll never forget.
Equally superb guest artist Lee Merrill, a WSU musical theater professor with extensive opera and musical theater credits across the country, marvelously epitomizes the devoted selflessness of Linda Loman, the good housewife willing to stand by her man and embrace his shortcomings even when she’s rudely berated. In Act One, Merrill splendidly heightens the meaningfully profound dialogue encompassing Linda’s legendary assertion that “attention must be paid.” Toward the conclusion, she wonderfully sheds Linda’s coy demeanor with thrilling rage and is completely devastating in the gut-wrenching final minutes that still packs a wallop after all these years.
Stoney and Merrill are winningly and respectively supported by Patrick Ross and Zach Schute as Biff and Happy Loman. Ross, utterly convincing as a star high school athlete ruined by his own immaturity and the earth-shattering horror of his father’s infidelity, dynamically conveys Biff’s fiery temperament and soul-searching insecurity. Schute is an amiable fit as the philandering Happy, who assumes the role of mediator during frequent family arguments that erupt here with strikingly combative, fist-pounding fury.
Hellems’ firm cast, clothed in Mary Beth McLaughlin’s fine period costumes, also includes Mathys Herbert (sharp and endearing as Biff’s childhood friend Bernard), Jenyth Rosati (effectively seductive and aggravating as The Woman), Jason Collins (first-rate as Charley, Bernard’s father and Willy’s financial saving grace), Andrew Quiett, Tyler Edwards, Tess Talbot, Justin King, Chelsey Cavender, Lauren Bernstein and Ben Street. Scenic designer Don David’s angled concept and Nicholas Crumbley’s moody lighting are atmospherically ideal.
Powerfully relevant in the midst of our current economic crisis, WSU’s “Death of a Salesman” splendidly wounds with a brutal honesty that will leave you breathless.
Death of a Salesman continues through Oct. 2 in the Robert and Elaine Stein Auditorium of the Creative Arts Center at Wright State University, 3640 Col. Glenn Hwy., Fairborn. Performances are Thursday at 7 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Act One: 70 minutes; Act Two: 83 minutes. Tickets are $17-$19. For tickets or more information, call (937) 775-2500.