Review of Death of a Salesman at The Black Rep

    Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman remains a powerful and moving play, and it gets a powerful and moving performance at The Black Rep.

    Director Jacqueline Thompson’s production focuses on the Loman family, as it should, as does Dunsi Dai’s open set, with the low platform holding the family kitchen downstage center and two bedrooms higher and upstage, one for Willy and Linda Loman, the other for their two sons, larger, with room for their reconnection after absence and for their growing concern for their father’s mental state. All of the actors’ playing is very physical, with their bodies expressing their tensions, attractions, reactions, repulsions, avoidances, the full range of emotions of this tightly-knit and strained family.

    You can ask nothing more of Ron Himes’ Willy Loman, the tired slump when we enters after an aborted road trip to make more sales, the superior yet dependent relationship to his wife Linda, the intensely convoluted relationships of pride and disappointment in his sons, the uncomfortable relationship with good neighbor Charley, and throughout the salesman’s need to seal the deal by being “well liked.” Himes’s is a memorable performance.

    His wife Linda is a fierce protector of her family, though often done in quieter ways in Velma Austin’s deeply satisfying performance. And when she must, finally, speak her mind to her sons, she is fully and immediately articulate and powered by love. She endures.

    An actor might easily settle with the couple of most obvious characteristics of older son Biff. Chauncy Thomas keeps filling out the picture with rich, fascinating details. He is easily the superior high school football hero in Willy’s memories but is shocked by his father into a painful revision of his values and beliefs, and all its twists and turns are in Thomas’s performance.

    Christian Kitchens makes younger brother Happy larger than I’ve often seen him. He’s still in Biff’s shadow, especially in the scenes from the past. But he is shaping his own path, working, like his father, in sales, but on the receiving end as the assistant to a buyer’s assistant. As a playboy and womanizer, with the  fashionable slicked-down hair of the period, he’s finally in competition with his brother. And he desperately wants to make his father and mother happy, but not by changing his ways.

    Jim Read does well with the difficult role of Willy’s neighbor Charley. It’s difficult because Charley is almost too good. Why does he continue to play cards with Willy when Willy accuses him of cheating, why does he loan Willy money that he knows will never be repaid, why does he offer Willy a job that Willy’s pride won’t let him accept? What made this one-sided relationship happen? Charley does get at the funeral one of the play’s great speeches, about why a salesman must believe in a dream.

    Jacob Cange also does well with Charley’s son Bernard. In the teen years the nerdy Bernard idolizes Biff and tries to get him to study for exams. Grown, Bernard is a very successful lawyer who has a very kind conversation with Willy.

    Kevin Brown brings natural authority to Willy’s older brother Ben, who had walked into the African jungle and come out rich with diamonds. He appears both as a visitor to the family in a memory, reminding Willy of his adventurous paternal heritage,  and as a guide and comforter to Willy as Willy sees him in his desperate need.

    Emily Raine-Blythe is a sexily compliant woman Biff discovers with Willy in a hotel room on the road. Franklin Killian’s Howard Wagner is more distant and distracted when he fires Willy than mean. He doubles as the waiter Stanley in the restaurant scene. Also there are Zahria Moore and Carmia Imani as the two “chippies” Happy has picked up. And as Charley’s secretary, Taijha Silas welcomes Willy to his office.

    This cast makes a fine production.

    As do all the artists who helped create it. Daryl Harris’ costumes mark character and time and place and help us distinguish memories apart from the present. Jasmine Williams’ lighting complements set and staging. Angel Hammie designed props, and composer Kayon Herrold’s music subtly adds a mood, with sound engineer De’Janna Scales-Hand. Stage Manager Tracy D. Holliway-Wiggins kept it all together. 

    In this mixed-raced cast, race means nothing in the play. But I have always wondered if the play is indeed set in 1949, when it was first produced, why neither Biff nor Happy say anything about service in World War II? Surely such fine young men would have been prime draft bait, if not eager volunteers.  I have always felt that, despite tweaks, Miller is really thinking of the last years of the Depression for Willy’s failure in the play’s present time, which would have put the happy memories in the more prosperous 1920s. Such I wonder.

    The Black Rep’s Death of a Salesman is a shining moment in St. Louis theatre.

    —Bob Wilcox

    Photo by NAME
    Ron Himes as Willie and Velma Austin as Linda in
    Death of a Salesman at The Black Rep