‘Death of a Salesman’: Out of its context and into a racial context

by Armando Huipe
Staff Writer

South Coast Repertory opens its 50th season with the American classic Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington. Race is a central topic on U.S. political and social consciousness. It is timely that Marc Masterson cast the Loman family in this 2013 production with African Americans. So what happens to the play when the Lomans are black? The result adds a rich new layer to the play that raises even more questions for the audience to nibble on.

Willy Loman’s (Charlie Robinson) very limited employment advancement seems unlikely in the collective memory of the time period the play is set. Masterson asks the audience to investigate the believability of these characters in the racial history of the 20s and 40s. This historical quality sharpens the blow of Willy’s self-deception regarding his perceived success as a traveling salesman. Racial tension, however, is only an added thematic element. Miller’s classic scrutinizes the American Dream – owning a home and creating opportunities for the next generation was at the heart of advancement in the past. Today Americans have had to reinterpret the dream when faced with difficult-to-meet-mortgage-payments and inflating educational costs.

In the moment Charlie Robinson walks onto the stage as Willy Loman, a thick heavy mood enters with him. The weight of Willy’s decades long struggle drags the character into a dark madness filled with memory and hallucination. Robinson delivers an expert portrayal of Willy, depicting his exhaustion without tiring out his audience. Kim Staunton displays a quiet strength that holds the family together as Willy’s wife, Linda Loman. Although she is often pushed aside or interrupted, her restraint pays off at the end of the play.

The second act opens with a scene where the non-traditionalcasting makes its greatest impact. The CEO of Willy’s company Howard Wagner, rousingly played by Tyler Pierce, is the son of the CEO Willy worked under as a budding salesman. Willy made him and now Willy works for him; the racial tension in this scene overshadows the on-the-page climax and contributes to the deep lull in this production’s second act. This dip in momentum cannot be afforded in a play that runs two hours and fifty-five minutes including intermission.

Biff and Happy played by Chris Butler and Larry Bates, play on a different plane than the elder cast. In the spirit of their characters, Butler and Bates are a little loud and have deeper accents than their parents. While their chemistry together works well, it’s a jarring difference when they are on stage with the parents.

The scenic design by Michael B. Raiford disentangles the audience from the strict confines of reality with angular lines of city buildings and wooden slats suggesting the continuing construction and development of the Loman’s neighborhood. The interaction of the set with the lighting by Brian J. Lilienthal create visual delights, however some of the lighting cues give the audience hints about Willy’s state of mind that are mildly distracting.

The sweeping success of the production is that it contributes to the conversation about race in this country and asks its audience to investigate this country’s history with race. The casting charges some of the play’s scenes without going past the point of political correctness. Of course, the play is written with an all white cast in mind, so there won’t be any references to a character’s skin color. However, no one would deny the racial subtext is there in this production.

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Death of a Salesman
Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Marc Masterson

South Coast Repertory
655 Town Center Drive
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

Performance Dates
September 7- September  29

Tickets: (714) 708-5555 or http://www.scr.org/