When Arthur Miller's 1949 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, "Death of a Salesman," played in Beijing in 1983, it was an enormous success--whole theaters of Chinese people wept.
That's because the play has a universal theme: It is about the plight of the common man.
Willy Loman, the salesman, wants to win out over anonymity and meaninglessness--he wants to count for something.
The production presented by the Ensemble Theatre Company and directed by Andrea Gordon is unusual for its extremes. It has some fine directorial achievements. Actors in the supporting roles, the two sons, the mother, the friends, are excellent. But the leading role is so woefully miscast that it sends the whole thing down the tubes--and what a shame it is.
I can't think of any reason why Robert Weiss should have been cast as Willy, except that he is artistic director of the theater company.
An open, competitive audition would have prevented politics superseding artistic reality.
The linchpin part of Willy is among the longest in dramatic literature. It offers the actor rich opportunities to explore the whole range of human emotions. It's a big part in more ways than one.
Weiss' portrayal is one-dimensional. We don't buy for a minute that he believes what he is saying, that those images are really going through his head.
He only plays the manic side of Willy--we never see the depressive side.
The only variation we get from clicking out lines like a machine is that he yells about a third of the time.
The terror and pathos implicit in the script is well understood by Otto Layman and Gary Best, as the two sons, Hap and Biff. Though Biff is traditionally the more important role, here, Layman gives us a a Hap that comes near dominating the two.
Hap, the younger son, is shallow, unambitious, as much a failure as his father, but he just doesn't know it yet.
Not an easy role to bring depth and sensitivity to--but Layman does that--looking on in dismay and then agony as his father exhibits increasingly bizarre behavior.
Gary Best spills his guts out in the role of Biff. He's believable as a high school football hero and as a 34-year-old drifter who can't fit into his family anymore. The repartee between Layman and Best crackles with tension.
They're rehearsed to the nines--they've somehow got into their characters and come out the other side.
They give us moments of real theater.
Gretchen Even's portrayal of Mother, though a bit mannered at times, is very good. There's a problem in some of her scenes with Willy in that they don't seem to know each other very well--but not from lack of Even's trying.
There are also some outstanding bits--the small role of Willy's old friend Charlie is a piece of cake for stage pro Richard Stretchberry. Young Christopher Vore is completely creditable in his transition from awkward adolescent to suave, successful man.
That brings us to the role of Ben (Gene Miller).
Though played as written, with nothing added and nothing deleted, director Gordon achieves the effect of having created a new role in a done-to-death play that's been picked over down to the bedrock.
Willy's dead brother Ben is tall and commanding. He wears a white suit and low-brimmed hat. He comes on in flashbacks and fantasy scenes, mostly in profile. Lighting is designed to isolate him, sometimes in darkness.
He becomes the figure in white, representing death. His presence increases in intensity until Willy's death seems to be an inevitable result of his visits.
Gordon's strong directorial hand can be felt throughout the production as a single voice.
Pacing is excellent, and the transitions between real time and fantasy time are particularly fine.
Shaun Wellen's cramped scenic design follows the playwright's instructions almost to the letter, but that may not have been the best artistic decision, given the tiny dimensions of the Alhecama stage. Lighting design by Patricia L. Frank was mood evoking.
Imagine an excellent production of "Hamlet" with a one-dimensional Hamlet, and you get an idea of what this show is like.
It flies, but with clipped wings. "Salesman" opens Ensemble Theatre Company's 13th season.
As one who reviewed their first season and has missed few of their shows since, I can say it's been a stormy 12 years marked by radical changes in leadership, funding problems and questionable judgment in the way public relations are handled. The theater has suddenly gone dark for months, more than once, from lack of good management.
This show marks the ensemble's first production with a Small Professional Theater Equity contract. (Evens, Vore and Stretchberry are Equity actors; the others in the cast will accrue points toward Equity status.)
Good luck Ensemble Theater and consider the value of competitive auditions for every part.
* WHERE AND WHEN
"Death of a Salesman," by Arthur Miller. Directed by Andrea Gordon. Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., matinee Nov. 25 at 2 p.m. All other Sunday performances at 7 p.m. Plays through Dec. 1. Tickets $14. Seniors and students $12. Presented by the Ensemble Theatre Company, at the Old Alhecama Theater, 914 Santa Barbara St., Santa Barbara. For ticket and program information, call 962-8606.