Thursday, March 3, 2016

Death of a Salesman

 A modern American classic at Lakewood Playhouse
Published in The News Tribune, March 3, 2016
From left, Happy (Gabe Hacker), Willy (Joseph Grant) and Biff (Tim Samland) in a scene from “Death of a Salesman” at Lakewood Playhouse. Photo by Tim Johnson

Read more here:
Lakewood Playhouse brings to the South Sound area the modern American classic “Death of a Salesman,” the Pulitzer, Drama Circle and Tony Award-winning play by Arthur Miller directed for the Lakewood Playhouse by James Venturini.
This emotionally wrought drama is intense, heavy, and relatively long at three hours including intermission, a length that was commonplace when first produced in 1949 but which many local audiences consider agonizing. For me the time flew by. On the face of it heavy handed for all the extreme emotions depicted, it is actually a nuanced investigation of troubled psyches, a multi-layered tragedy, the 20th century equivalent of “Hamlet.”
Joseph Grant as Willy Loman and Kathi Aleman as Linda.
Photo by Tim Johnson
“Death of a Salesman” is an unflinching look at the American Dream during the mostly prosperous years following World War II as seen through the lives of Willy Loman (Joseph Grant) and his family. Willy is a traveling salesman who has never come close to achieving the success he fools himself into believing is his due – earned through the magic of a winning personality and shined shoes. Losing touch with reality, and increasingly unable to distinguish between the past and present, Willy is desperate to hang on to his increasingly dissatisfying and low-paying job. Losing hope for himself, he hangs onto another dream, that his eldest son, Biff (Tim Samland) will achieve the success he has never been able to reach. But Biff, a failure in his own eyes and in the eyes of his family, does not share Willy’s idea of the good life and is torn between wanting to honor his father and wanting to strike out on his own. (Willy is incensed because Biff at 34 is still “trying to find himself.”)
The writing might seem overwrought and dated to some contemporary audience members, but it is gripping and highly intelligent as only the best of drama can be. Blake York’s set captures the feel of the times and perfectly sets up the way of life of the Loman family with cheap furniture and old quilts on beds, a beat-up old refrigerator, and rooms including two bedrooms, living room and kitchen arranged on stage for easy access from scene to scene. Venturini has his actors seamlessly go from room to room, to hotels and restaurants and even into the past and into scenes that exist only in Willy’s imagination without any abrupt or gimmicky changes in lighting or scenery. Placing the boys’ beds on a riser and flying overhead roof beams is inspired set design.
The 1949 period costumes by Rochelle-Ann Graham are spot on, and the lighting (uncredited) brings scenes to life. Small touches like spotlighting Uncle Ben (Dave Hall), who exists only in memory, served to remind the audience that Ben is long since dead.
The large cast includes old favorites on Tacoma stages such as Grant and Kathi Aleman (who plays Willy’s wife, Linda); newcomers to Lakewood Playhouse such as Samland and Jackie-Lyn Villava-Cua in her first appearance in any play anywhere; and even assistant stage manager, Kira Zink, who makes a delightful if small appearance in one scene. It is an exciting and talented cast with Tony Award-worthy performances by Grant, Samland and Aleman.
Most amazing among the various performances – and not just from the actors playing principle roles – are the huge changes they go through, becoming, believably, entirely different characters. Aleman’s Linda goes from a meek and subservient housewife to an explosive mother of hardheaded boys. Grant’s Willy is practically a chameleon of change as he struggles with the here and now, memories and visions. Samland plays Biff as a naïve and ridiculously hopeless teenager and as an angry and disillusioned young man, and Charlie Stevens changes so dramatically it is almost impossible to imagine the nerdy teenage Bernard and the successful lawyer Bernard are one and the same person. Also shining brilliantly is Gabe Hacker as Biff’s womanizing younger brother, Happy.
It seems community theater in the South Sound has reached new heights. I’ve seen more excellent plays over the past month than I can remember ever seeing in such a short period of time, and “Death of a Salesman” takes its place at the top of the list.

Check Alec’s blog at for reviews of other area theatrical productions.

WHAT: Death of a Salesman
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, through March 13
WHERE: Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd., Lakewood
TICKETS: $19-$25
INFORMATION: 253.588.0042,

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