by Robert Bell
The Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s current show “Death of a Salesman” — its first production of Arthur Miller’s iconic and storied play — is a wrenching affair, a glimpse into a dysfunctional family finally confronting reality after years of failure, denial and unfulfilled promise. The story will probably ring familiar for most theatergoers: a salesman, in the waning days of his career, falls to pieces in the face of a lifetime’s worth of disappointment and delusion.
In Robert Walden’s Willy Loman, you feel the weight of the years and all of life’s thousands of disappointments great and small in every lumbering step. His posture and crumpled frame communicate nearly as much as Miller’s words to convey the brokenness of this man. He pinballs fitfully between bursts of manic optimism, convulsions of rage and rose-colored recollections of the good old days, when his sons Biff and Happy showed such promise.
As Linda Loman, Carolyn Mignini effortlessly alternates between diminutive, devoted wife and mother and fiercely loyal defender of her crumbling spouse. In one moment, smilingly accepting each interruption and shushing as she tries to chime in, in another, heaping guilt and rage on her two sons and utterly owning the famous line: “Attention must be paid.”
As Biff, Rep veteran Avery Clark embodies the directionless angst and wanderlust of his character. In the flashback scenes, he’s a cocksure and carefree football star Adonis, while the present-day Biff, 34 and still trying to figure out what to do with his life, is desperate and still deeply wounded by a scarring, long ago encounter with his father’s failings.
Craig Maravich’s Happy Loman is all libidinous id, more successful than his brother only in that he’s managed to maintain a job and an apartment, but still an emotionally stunted man-child.
The use of Alex North’s original score feels somewhat anachronistic, but this adds an unsettling layer to the production that deepens the experience. Similarly, the period-perfect costumes and props lend a preserved-in-amber visual quality to the show, but the grief and the rage and the disappointment and fleeting optimism are all alive and breathing in the moment. Mike Nichols’ set is both visually appealing and economical in its use of the space, and the lighting works beautifully with the design.
The Rep has put together a cast that brings this emotional and at times traumatic work to messy, tearful life on the stage. The play is nearly three hours long, but under Bob Hupp’s deft direction it neither drags nor feels rushed. This show seems like it will be one of those Rep productions that people will talk about long after its run has ended. It is not to be missed.
“Death of a Salesman” runs through May 12, with performances at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $25-$40.