Review: The Black Rep's Death of a Salesman Is Superb

The St. Louis-based production offers a beautifully wrought American tragedy

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click to enlarge Ron Himes play Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.
Phil Hamer
Ron Himes is mesmerizing as Willy Loman.

Playwright Arthur Miller’s tragic Death of a Salesman is a heavy, heady American classic. The story explores the harsh realities and the price many pay trying to capture the American Dream. The Black Rep’s excellent production, under the direction of Jacqueline Thompson, mines every nuance and inflection out of the dense script. More than just the crumbling of a dream, we see every crack in the guises of hope and persistence that are its foundation.

Willy Loman believes in the American Dream. And not just any dream, Willy believes in the biggest of dreams. The dream where any one, no matter their background or circumstances, is just one big idea, one lucky break, one good connection, one game-winning play from making it big. The dream is so tantalizing, it can lead to delusions that sustain a person for years only to come crashing down that much harder.

We meet Loman, a traveling salesman, as his reality and dreams prepare for a final showdown. His wife, Linda, stretches their limited resources to make ends meet but remains cheerful. Sons Biff and Happy struggle to find their places in the world and to reconcile their father’s dreams and expectations with their own day-to-day lives. Sometimes, Loman thinks he would help his family more if he were dead.

Ron Himes is mesmerizing as Willy Loman, revealing pain and vulnerability as well as the necessary bravado and gravity the role demands. Like Shakespeare’s Leer, Loman’s assumptions have blinded him to reality, and it hurts everyone he loves. Himes shows every possible facet of desperation in search of hope as Loman’s moods swing wildly and any sense of meaning or purpose fades. Chauncy Thomas is electric as the always restless, always uneasy Biff. He falters under the heavy weight of not living up to the potential others place on him; Thomas deftly ensures we understand the toll this takes on his character’s psyche.

click to enlarge Two actors sit on a bed on stage, their faces contorted with emotion.
Phil Hamer
Death of a Salesman explores the harsh realities of the American Dream.

Velma Austin’s Linda is “making do” personified — persistent and resolute when required. Christian Kitchens shows us just how desperate Happy is for the slightest positive acknowledgment from his father. And Kevin Brown is telling as Loman’s distant, wealthy older brother Ben. The solid ensemble cast includes Jacob Cange, Emily Raine-Blythe, Jim Read, Franklin Killian, Taijha Silas, Zahria Moore and Carmia Imani.

Set designer Dunsi Dai and composer Keyon Harrold set the time, period and a pervasive tone that’s under stress but holding steady. Lighting designer Jasmine Williams, costume designer Daryl Harris, and props designer Angel Hammie add the finishing touches that establish the post-war, emerging middle-class world in which the Lomans live and work.

Arthur Miller’s play is a riveting drama that exposes the darker corners of the American Dream. This production features a Black Willy Loman and family, which adds a compelling and telling perspective to the already weighty story without altering the script or the playwright’s intention. Death of a Salesman is an American literary classic; The Black Rep’s excellent production shows audiences why.

Catch Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, presented by the Black Rep, at the Edison Theatre (6465 Forsyth Boulevard),  now through January 29. Showtimes vary. Tickets are $46.25 to $51.25.

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About The Author

Tina Farmer

Tina Farmer is a longtime critic who has spent the last decade reviewing productions for KDHX. She is also very involved with the St. Louis Theater Circle, which supports the theater community by organizing annual awards that honor the best local productions.
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