Duquesne University’s Red Masquers, opens the 2015-16 season with the American classic Death of a Salesman. This play christens the university’s Genesius Theater and features a 13 member cast consisting of students, alumni, faculty members and community artists. The 120-seat theater space offers functional tiered seating, a spacious lobby, which I am told will soon have upholstered seating for patrons, large windows and high ceilings. The area is unpretentious yet modern.
Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller, is one of the greatest American plays ever written. Salesman tells a tale of the proverbial American family. It is the epitome of an American tragedy mimicking the dynamics of a nuclear family from the midcentury; mother, father and two sons who struggle to accept years of hushed familial hostility and repressed resentment complicated by mental illness, which threatens the already compromised relationships between father and son, between two brothers and between mother and son. Main character, Willy Loman, is experiencing mental illness; dementia or psychotic episodes triggered by the realization that his success as a traveling salesman has faltered and he has not attained the financial achievements that, in his mind, constitute his worth as a person. His two adult sons, Biff and Happy, are no better off, financially, than Willy. Willy’s wife Linda, a peace maker, sees the good in all her family and never wavers in devotion to her husband, even when Biff and Happy point out his faults. Nor is she shy in showing unconditional love for her sons, even when Willy verbally insults their value as people, based on the career choices they have made.
Mark Yochum, an established Pittsburgh thespian and Duquesne University faculty member is cast as Willy. Yochum is a master of the stage. In the opening scene, Willy struggles into his home after another failed attempt to sell his wares. He is exhausted and shares his emotional vulnerability with his loving and supportive wife Linda, played by seasoned actress Nancy Bach Love. Effortlessly, Yochum moves his character into an angry and resentful Willy. This emotional transition occurs throughout the entire play and Love follows Yochum’s lead, flawlessly delivering her appeasing natured character. Loman Brothers, Happy and Biff played by Duquesne University theater arts major Nathaniel Yost and ‘Pittsburgh Dad’ Curt Wootton respectively, are two men who have never quite grown up.
Willy’s narcissism and his descent into mental illness are revealed by an equal amount of Yochum’s talent and the innovative direction of John E. Lane Jr. The dizzying moments of lighting and a deeply affective original score composed by Duquesne alum Brian Buckley, is just the right amount of melodrama to make the audience slightly uncomfortable. The music transports the characters into and out of the past with poignancy. Yost and Wootton interact with an intimacy like only two brothers can share. This is especially evident as they lay in their childhood beds sharing memories of their youth and their hopes of the future. Their delivery of both roles; as men and, in Willy’s memories, as boys, is smooth.
Biff’s struggle to show his father who he is, the man he has become is tormenting. Wootton quickly conveys, with just his facial expressions, how damaged he has been, by the forlorn look on his face. Yost plays the role of Happy loud and boisterous. He is a self-inflated, womanizing underemployed businessman, all talk as a good salesman is required to be. At first he appears devoted to his family, but we soon see how people can be disposable to Happy. Willy’s mental state continues to decline and the past and present clash in a cacophony of chaos in a powerful scene in a restaurant.
The show is backed by a stellar supporting cast. Willy’s Brother Ben played by Jay Keenan, former Duquesne University professor, appears to him in visions and creates a backdrop for the development of Willy’s expectations. Ben is aloof in the powerful dreamlike sequences yet conducts the audience’s attention with his deep authoritative tone and formal Edwardian style suit. Additionally, Colleen Garrison, Duquesne University freshman is cast as Willy’s long ago mistress. Her voracious laugh haunts his memories and the deep sensation of his regret is felt in the audience with each eerie reverberation of her cackle.
The Loman’s neighbors, Bernard and Charley, played by Jacob Wadsworth and Tim Colbert, Duquesne University alum, are devoted family friends. Willy’s outward jealousy of their successes is another instance when the audience has a choice, to contemplate disliking the Willy Loman character or to just feel sorry for him. During Willy’s flashbacks, Wadsworth portrays a nerdy young Bernard in knickers which adds some lightheartedness to the heavy plot. Meanwhile Colbert’s part as Charley is a naturally witty and joking character. Instinctively Charley balances the seriousness of Willy’s bitter and indignant attitude while offering a compassionate word or a gift when needed. Colbert’s timing of a more sensitive manner is always spot-on, and his happy-go-lucky attitude carries the show‘s quest for order amidst the constant disorder and inconsistencies.
Throughout the play Willy asks, “What’s the secret”? He asks Ben, he asks Bernard but no one can tell Willy what he wants to hear; the secret to happiness and success. The success of this performance of Salesman is the delivery of erratic dialogue and the staging of past and present. The passion of the theater is obviously the driving force behind The Red Masquers portrayal of familial synergy from stage to spectator. Salesman is not a unique story. The generic ideals of self-worth defined by a perception of popularity and materialism simply span decades of American culture. The Red Masquers manage to convey the conflicts of the Loman family in ways that are both introspective and subjective.
The collaboration of a new theater, a creative and energized cast and crew and innovative direction add a fresh new depth to the classic Death of a Salesman. This is the perfect performance for novel theatergoers to experience classic American drama.
Performances now through October 18, 2015. Special thanks to the Duquesne Red Masquers for complimentary press tickets. For tickets and more information, check out their website.
Performance Date: Friday, October 2, 2015