What better way for South Coast Repertory to open its 50th Anniversary season than with what many consider the finest play of the 20th Century, Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Death Of A Salesman, and to do so with a twist—by casting the Lomans as an African-American family.

Tracey A. Leigh, Charlie Robinson and Kim Staunton in South Coast Repertory's 2013 production of DEATH OF A SALESMAN by Arthur Miller This non-traditional casting not only opens up iconic roles to actors who might not otherwise get to play them, it adds whole new nuances to this working-class family’s pursuit of the American Dream, most particularly in scenes between family members and their African-American neighbors. A pair of supporting roles also get non-traditionally cast—one as Hispanic, the other as Asian—resulting in a Death Of A Salesman that requires a certain suspension of disbelief whenever we leave the Lomans’ late-1940s neighborhood, but one whose many rewards make it a must-see, even for those who might not otherwise opt to revisit Willy, Linda, Biff, Happy, and the rest.

By the time we meet Willy Loman (Charlie Robinson), the lifelong traveling salesman has become at age 63 a mere shadow of who he once was—or perhaps of what he only believes he once was: a salesman who made it to the top of his game though a combination of likeability and “salesmanship.”

A nearly broken man now, Willy has taken to talking to himself, or rather to imagining conversations with people from his past—younger versions of long-suffering wife Linda (Kim Staunton), 30something sons Biff (Chris Butler) and Happy (Larry Bates), successful neighbor Charley (James A. Watson, Jr.) and Charley’s equally prosperous son Bernard (Tobie Windham), and Willy’s deceased older brother Ben (Gregg Daniel), whose rags-to-riches success in Africa acquires new meanings this time round.

Kim Staunton and Charlie Robinson in South Coast Repertory's 2013 production of DEATH OF A SALESMAN by Arthur Miller Not surprisingly, Willy’s bizarre behavior has begun to prey on Linda’s mind, as has Willy’s recent car crash, a one-car collision that may not have been as accidental as she would like to think. Adding to Linda’s family concerns are younger son Happy’s constant womanizing and all-around lack of achievement, and Biff’s return to the family nest, the older Loman son having long ago failed to fulfill the potential he showed as a high school athlete.

Tyler Pierce and Charlie Robinson in South Coast Repertory's 2013 production of DEATH OF A SALESMAN by Arthur Miller When Willy’s attempt at convincing his much younger boss Howard (Tyler Pierce) to assign him a city job rather than one on the road backfires, whatever hold on his sanity Willy may have had up till now begins to evaporate. Add to that a pair of ne’er-do-well sons each as screwed up as the other and a wife who’s long since reached her wit’s end and you’ve got a recipe for Greek Tragedy American-style, particularly as brought to intense, heartbreaking, indelible life at South Coast Rep.

Charlie Robinson is Willy Loman in South Coast Repertory's 2013 production of DEATH OF A SALESMAN by Arthur Miller As Willy, stage vet Robinson gives his all to this role of a lifetime, and if he seems still not fully on top of Willy’s monumental number of lines, in all other respects Robinson’s is a towering performance, one that reveals this most imperfect of men in all his hopes, his disappointments, his flaws, and his undeniable valor.

Staunton is perfection in one of the finest of the many great roles Miller wrote for our best American actresses. Willy Loman may get the play’s title, but Linda becomes its heart and soul and maybe even its true hero, Staunton’s work here matching the best of the many women who have brought Linda to life before her.

Chris Butler, Charlie Robinson and Larry Bates in South Coast Repertory's 2013 production of DEATH OF A SALESMAN by Arthur Miller There aren’t two better young African-American actors than Butler and Bates (heck, there aren’t two better actors period), and it’s a joy pure and simple to see the duo sink their teeth into Biff and Happy, both in their exuberant adolescence and as the adult disappointments they have become. Scenes between Bates and Butler crackle with a combination of longtime sibling rivalry and brotherly loyalty, while angry, reproachful confrontations between Butler and Robinson ignite theatrical fireworks as they reveal some of the same father-son themes Miller dealt with in his earlier All My Sons.

Daniel’s Uncle Ben, Watson’s Charley, and Windham’s Bernard are all three finely-rendered performance gems, and it’s a particular delight to see Windham transformed from nerdy, put-upon teen into confident adult lawyer.

Chris Butler, Charlie Robinson, Christopher Rivas, Celeste Den, Larry Bates and Becca Lustgarten in South Coast Repertory's 2013 production of DEATH OF A SALESMAN by Arthur Miller Tracey A. Leigh’s sexy woman from Willy’s past, Tyler Pierce’s all-business, no-compassion Howard, Celeste Den’s sexy (and very Noo Yawk) Miss Forsythe, and Christopher Rivas’s peppy waiter Stanley simply could not be better, with Becca Lustgarten (Letta) and Georgina E. Okon (Jenny) just right in cameo roles.

South Coast Rep Artistic Director Marc Masterson deserves top marks for his masterful direction, and never more so than when he allows us to see Willy’s imagined conversations both as Willy himself perceives them and the way they come across to the outside world, for whom Willy appears nothing more than a crazy guy talking to the air around him. It’s a smart directorial touch too to have Butler and Bates give us an idealized version of teenage Biff and Happy whenever we see them through Willy’s rose-colored fantasizing.

Chris Butler, Charlie Robinson, Gregg Daniel, Kim Staunton and Larry Bates in South Coast Repertory's 2013 production of DEATH OF A SALESMAN by Arthur Miller Michael B. Raiford’s non-literal representation of the Loman home and surroundings is a clever one since so much of Death Of A Salesman takes place in Willy’s mind, a beautifully-rendered surrealism enhanced by Brian J. Lilienthal’s expert lighting and the moody “soundscape” composed by Jim Ragland. Costume designer Holly Poe Durbin keeps things realistic—and appropriately so—in the spot-on period outfits she has created for her mid-20th Century characters.

Jamie A. Tucker is stage manager and Joshua Marchesi production manager.  Casting is by Joanne DeNaut, CSA.  Kimberly Colburn is dramaturg, Andrea Caban dialect coach, Sue Karutz assistant stage manager, Andy Knight assistant dramaturg, Amber Caras production assistant, Sarah Figoten assistant to the director, Haley Risdana costume design assistant, and Will Daniel assistant to the composer.

As productions like 2011’s superb Los Angeles multiracial staging of Miller’s All My Sons and every single East West Players revival make abundantly clear, there is much to be gained from non-traditional casting, for both performers and audiences as well. I can’t imagine any theater lover wanting to pass on South Coast Rep’s bracingly non-traditional take on the American classic that is Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman.

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
September 8, 2013
Photos: Debora Robinson/SCR

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