Plano — It is often said that to create really good theater all one really needs is a well-written script, a bare stage, and good actors with maybe a couple of props. Susan Sargeant had a little more than that to work with for her production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman at Fun House Theatre and Film, but not much. Clare Floyd DeVries’ set consists of a table, three chairs and two rollaway beds. That’s it. With the help of good lighting design by Suzanne Lavender, theater happened. And it was good.
Death of a Salesman tells the story of a 63-year-old man (Willy Loman) fighting change at a time with the realities of his life are closing in, crushing the fictional one he prefers. He is married to Linda and together they have raised two issue-laden sons, Biff and Happy. Willy supported his family as a traveling salesman but times are changing, and his type are rapidly becoming unessential. He moves in and out of reality, preferring the world of his memories to the one in which he lives. He does not understand the modern business world that seems to not care whether “a man is well liked.”
Aside from respect and admiration for this work by Arthur Miller, the driving interest in this production is the fact that with one exception—Jeff Swearingen as Willy Loman—the actors are minors by age. By ability they are anything but.
Upon first hearing about a production of Death of a Salesman with ‘kids’—which was seen on the night before closing day for this review—one might think “Urgh. How can that work in seriousness?”
It is interesting to know that Arthur Miller created this play when he was a college student. As he explained it in an interview with Mike Wood, “the whole play was practically laid out…but I hadn’t solved its stylistic question.” So this play, with its aged central character and complex, mature themes, was conceived by a very young adult, an individual that some might have considered ‘just a kid’ at the time. Miller was just a few years older than some of the members of this cast when he began writing it. At that tender age he knew the story he wanted to tell, and his characters were fully developed. What remained to figure out was the structure—how to tell the internal and external workings of the central character at the same time and with clarity. Miller identified this as his major problem—one that took years to resolve.
When it premiered in 1949, he was in his 30s. Death of a Salesman received the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play.
Swearingen, who is also in his 30s, wears the role of Willy Loman like a favorite sweater that is fraying but refuses to relinquish its job of protecting the wearer. Aside from age, he is physically what Miller envisioned for this character: a man of smaller stature with big dreams. Swearingen’s back-and-forth toggle between Willy’s internal and external worlds is believable and clear. His strongest moments occur during the periods of delusion. In the scene with Willy’s brother, Ben (Doak Campbell Rapp), when Willy makes the life-changing decision to remain in the city rather than accompany Ben to Alaska, we could see that while he said otherwise, Willy realized he had probably made the wrong choice. It is in Swearingen’s eyes, in his timing, the halting moment, the hand to his lips as if to silence them too late. Small movements, big things.
Biff (Chris Rodenbaugh) and Happy (Tex Patrello), in the context of this production, are nicely cast as Willy’s sons. The entire cast employs New England accents but Patrello’s is the most consistent. Patrello and Rodenbaugh listen well, an essential skill for actors but one not always evident among even the most seasoned performers. The bedroom scene dialogues are quite lovely.
It is sad to think of a person saying “I am nothing,” but it must be devastating for a parent to hear that from their child. Aside from the spot on delivery of those lines, there is the visual of a son collapsing in his father’s arms after having said that and the father’s inability to hug him. It is beautifully acted with the staging, lighting and sound (by Lowell Sargeant) connecting in support.
Kennedy Waterman as Linda Loman has a difficult task playing opposite Swearingen. She was obviously much younger, and in a role set during a time when women were to be seen but not heard from. It is a big job for a teenage girl, but she holds her own. This does not mean that we believe she is even close to the appropriate age of this character, who is in her 60s. We simply stop caring about that at some point and admire Waterman for what she manages in the role.
Actually, it turns out that the age of the cast is not relevant in this production. This is largely because these young actors dig in and do the work. It’s a terrific acting exercise for them. It deserves to be mentioned again how well they listen to each other, responding and reacting in the moment. They understand the story and the characters. Costumes (Eric Criner for Costumes by Dusty), makeup (Gabrielle Grafrath), and wig (Coy Covington) are helpful toward establishing not only period, but age.
The actors are very fortunate to have had a strong director in Sargeant, and from their résumés it is clear that they have benefitted from solid core training at this theater. Several of them have agency representation.
As my first experience with Fun House, it makes me curious to see what’s coming next from this group.
» Editor's note: In the interest of disclosure, Fun House producer Bren Rapp is the Director of Sales and Marketing for TheaterJones.