Death of a Salesman – Theatre Review: Scottsdale Desert Stages, Scottsdale

It’s amazing how potent the emotional impact of a 1949 play can be no matter how many times you’ve seen it. In a world where our technological developments advance at a breathtakingly rapid pace, certain things remain the same. When it comes to the laws of human nature, what was relevant in ‘49 can still be relevant seventy years later.

Death of a Salesman, the tragic story of Willy Loman, is one that relates to most adults; at some point in our lives, if only for a short while, we’ve all been a Willy Loman. The need to hope and dream when times are rough can dominate our thoughts. But it’s that ability to distinguish between a hope and a reality that can keep a person grounded. For Willy, he’s lost that ability, if he ever had it. He’s lived a life dreaming in epic proportions, fueled by the promises of the American dream, but his abilities and the results of years on the road as a traveling salesman have never caught up with those visions of opportunity and material success. As a consequence, he kids himself. All the time.

Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre’s new production of Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Death of a Salesman is now playing until April 14 in its smaller Actor’s Café venue. And while the intimacy of the theatre has to be acknowledged, considering what director Virginia Olivieri and her cast are up against in such a restrictive setting, they do a remarkable job. Despite the cast’s inability to fully take command of the stage with any real sense of flexibility, such is the power of the play, and this production in particular, that the company can still deliver a powerful emotional punch. Considering what they’re up against, they all do astonishing work.

The new Actor’s Café is where a Harkins Movie Theatre used to be. It’s the one that housed the smallest screen. As a result, while the width of the stage is something a creative director can work with, the issue is depth. The place was never built for a live performance. All that was previously required was a screen and enough room behind the canvas to house large speakers. The limitations of what can be achieved are immediately apparent with the set.

All the elements are there – stage left is the kitchen, stage right Willy and Linda’s bedroom that will later double as a hotel room, upstage against the wall on a raised platform is the boy’s bedroom, and center is the living room – but what’s missing are the towering shapes of the tall apartment buildings that dwarf all around Willy’s home, looking as though they’re leaning in on his small house. When Willy (Walt Pedano) peers through the kitchen window and declares, “You’ve gotta break your neck to see a star in this yard,” it’s only clear what he’s talking about if you already know what he’s referring to.

Still, necessity is the mother of all invention, and like all community theatre where you work with what you’re given, including those who audition, director Olivieri makes good creative use of everything available. There are no scrims to help the sudden hallucinatory appearances of Willy’s thoughts. With Stacey Walston’s effective lighting design to help change time and place, when Willy reflects back on events of the past, those rose-colored images of his memory are often re-enacted in front of the stage, before the first row of seats. Willy literally steps down to be a part of them as he talks with his sons Biff (Matthew Fields Winter) and Happy (Mo Simpson), or his neighbors Bernard (Steve Rowe), and Bernard’s father, Charley (Al Benneian). And when the mystical figure of the authoritative Uncle Ben (J. Kevin Tallent) walks on, he’s dressed in white, reminiscent of a Yankee Colonel Sanders, an image that immediately separates him from everyone else.

As the outcome of the story is in the title, the effectiveness of any production of Arthur Miller’s drama is not so much the conclusion but how well the cast handles the emotional ups and downs – mostly downs – of the journey to get there. Willy’s loyal wife Linda is played with grace and convincing empathy by Donna Kaufman, exemplified by her final speech at the graveside when she begins by telling Willy she can’t cry – his absence is as though he’s on another trip – yet within a few sentences more, she’s sobbing, then uncontrollably so. If that moment doesn’t work, the play fails. Kaufman’s Linda makes it work.

Walt Pedano was a good Ricky Roma in Desert Stages’ previous production of Glengarry Glen Ross. Here as Willy Loman, he’s better. Pedano’s Willy lies to himself and to his family, but they’re the kind of lies that he wants to believe. It’s as if by saying they’re true, they become so. And it’s this relentless self-deception that ultimately makes Willy self-destructive. When a person’s worth is determined by unattainable material success, it can ruin. Like the success that is beyond Willy’s grasp, so is the dream; he’ll never reach it. Pedano succeeds in making us believe that the Willy Loman we see is truly unstable and self-deluding.

Given the limitations of its forum, with good support from the cast, particularly Matthew Fields Winter as Biff, Olivieri’s Death of a Salesman is clearly the most accomplished production Desert Stages has presented in its new Actor’s Café location since the company moved there. But like Willy Loman’s wishful thinking, you can’t help but imagine how more effective the whole affair could have been had it the opportunity to open on the larger main stage theatre next door. If there was a Desert Stages presentation that would artistically benefit from such a transition, it’s this one.

Death of a Salesman continues at Scottsdale Desert Stages’ Actor’s Café until April 14

Pictures Courtesy of Wade Moran

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