Arthur Miller's most celebrated play, Death of a Salesman, hasn't been performed in Madison for over 20 years.
Director Richard Corley's decision to present Madison Repertory Theatre's version on a stark stage and allow the language and performances to dominate is a good one. Brian Sidney Bembridge's abstract set consists of a shallow recessed area center stage and rows of rectangular columns in the rear onto which images of an outdoor mountain scene and rectangular white lights were alternately projected. The only ornate element is the flooring, which resembles the intricate wood marquetry in old homes on the east coast.
The spare use of props is also effective. Willy Loman's sample cases are used as seating, headboards for beds, a car and most significantly, a headstone.
Corley's casting and direction yields some stellar performances, some good ones and a few that are merely adequate. Roderick Peeples as Willy Loman is powerful. It would be easy for an actor to deliver an overwrought performance in this challenging role, but Peeple's range and agility with the role allows us to see convincing glimpses of Loman in his prime as well as his decline. Peeples slips seamlessly between the many facets of Loman's character -- at times a bully, then kind, smooth talking then pathetic. He skillfully reveals Loman's despair alongside his false bravado. Peeples wisely saves the upper register of his theatricality for the end of the play, as Loman's frantic attempts to leave something tangible behind, even if it's just vegetables in his backyard, brings the evening to its stunning, if inevitable climax.
DJ Howard as Charley, Loman's neighbor and the closest thing to a friend that Loman has, is excellent in a relaxed performance that perfectly compliments Peeples'. Howard's comfort in the role helps emphasize the relative ease in which Charley has moved through his life and how that makes Loman jealous and combative.
Braden Moran's portrayal of prodigal son Biff grew on me as the play progressed, and he is truly impressive in the final scenes as he takes stock of himself and his father. When he says "we never told the truth in the house for ten minutes" it's raw and devastating. David Wilson-Brown successfully captures second son Happy's slick and disingenuous side.
A standout in a small role is William Bolz as Loman's boss. He is callous and self-important as he distractedly tinkers with a tape recorder while Loman pleads with him for a new position in the company.
There are some nice lighting effects throughout, used in combination with a fairly intricate if not entirely successful sound design. My favorite effect was a combination of sound and light that created the sensation of being on a speeding subway car.
Thankfully, Corley and company don't try to reinvent the wheel here, rather they have mounted a skillful production that allows this American masterwork to breathe and shine. The intimacy of the staging emphasizes the personal over the political and allows us to see how well this piece has stood the test of time.