Director Mike Reilly's staging of Arthur Miller's 1949 "Death of a Salesman" on the tiny Ruskin Stage with Rob Morrow as Willy Loman is a mixed bag. Starting with Lee J. Cobb starring on Broadway as the downtrodden sixty-something salesman at the age of 37, Morrow, not yet sixty misses the mark. He is well known for his role as Dr. Joel Fleischman on CBS's "Northern Exposure" and more recently as FBI Special Agent Don Eppes on "Numb3rs". And, so in memory he is still the youthful leading man. The challenge of overcoming his dewy past with a cast of mostly strong stage actors might work if the business of 'acting' took a back seat to allowing the character to simply come to life.
The Ruskin stage is tiny. Forty nine seats in the audience. Arthur Miller's notes imagine the City of New York looming threateningly over the Brooklyn home where Willy and his adoring wife, Linda Loman (charming and letter perfect Lee Garlington), have raised their two sons. Biff is the older one.. (Robert Adamson) and Happy, the younger: (Dylan Rourke).
Garlington accomplishes in a subtle gesture, a sigh.. her devotion to her husband with moments perfectly timed and seasoned to buffer the rants and over the top reactions that Morrow brings to his character.
We hear the dejected ring of failure as Morrow clumps in, burdened with the weight of the entire story. Instead of building a foundation, this entrance only calls attention to itself.
Charley (spot on Jack Merrill), is the Loman's perky next door neighbor, a caring relentless tease.
In memory, Willy's older brother, Ben (Donovan Patton) boosts the energy level with appropriate bombast. Bernard (Lucas Alifano), amazingly transforming from youth to successful attorney, impresses with succinct moments that, in this intimate space, rebound beautifully.
Director Mike Reilly, pares what was a fully staged Broadway play, winning both the Tony and the Pulitzer Prize, down to the Ruskin's tiny arena, but the scope of the story demands more than the playing area can deliver. Stephanie Kerley Schwartz's bare bones set is angular and difficult.
However, the poetry of Miller's well delineated characters is not altogether lost in the small venue. The text speaks to the desolation of what may have been the loss of the American Dream of many men post WWII. We see the undercurrent of what small time cheats and big time lies radiate into Willy's family. Only Galrlingon is straight and true: long suffering and supportive in the face of failure; perhaps deluded or in the times simply playing out the hand that she was dealt and may have anticipated all along? As Willy brags about his popularity and imagined multi-gross sales, the ennui of never really getting started rears its head as in memory he begs big brother, Ben, to tell him the secret of success. Ben walked into the jungle at the age of seventeen and by god, at twenty one, when he came back out: He was rich!
Long ago, Willy pawned the watch fob set with a diamond, gifted from Ben.
Lee Garlington's performance is worth the trip to The Ruskin all in itself alone. If Morrow finds his way and allows Willy to emerge, we may be pleasantly surprised. His success as a screen actor is extensive. We can appreciate his giving himself a challenge to go against type and hope that there's a happy compromise that will bring Willy Loman from caricature to life.
Nicely rounding out the cast, Kerry Knuppe (The Woman), Sara Young Chandler (Ms. Forsythe) and Emily Anna Bell (as Letta/Jenny).
DEATH OF A SALESMAN
by Arthur Miller
8pm Fridays and Saturdays
2pm on Sundays
Through August 4, 2019
No performances July 12 - 14
Ruskin Group Theatre
3000 Airport Avenue
Santa Monica, CA 90405
Tickets and Information