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Center Stage

Use and discard and explode

9/26/2016

It comes down to chemistry, finally. Mark Gruber and Kerry Skram, as the couple who dance with doom throughout “Death of a Salesman,” make a volatile compound. Each time they explode, they help Repertory Theater of Iowa deliver the tragedy without once feeling like a drag.death

This salesman goes down flailing, as Gruber keeps his hands in the air.  His Willy Loman is so desperate he grasps at phantoms out of his past. And when he gets his hands on an actual person, to them he seems threatening — a bad move indeed, considering the guy he’s grabbed is either his boss or his son. As for Skram, playing Loman’s wife Linda, she brings the same sort of intensity to the play’s most famous moment. Confronting her two grown boys, who shrug off their father’s crisis, she insists on his worth. “Attention must be paid,” claims the wife. Her Willy can’t “fall into his grave like an old dog.”
Powerful lines, but in many productions they sound weepy, like a lament. Skram knows better. She gets the anger in the outburst, and her glare bores in on her sons, as each word draws her closer across their shabby kitchen.

Anger matters a lot, in Arthur Miller’s great dramas. “Salesman,” a Pulitzer winner in 1949, wasn’t his first success, but along with “The Crucible” (1953) it’s the work on which his reputation rests, and both plays are fired by outrage. Miller felt such disgust at the way American business treated a low man like Loman — strictly use-and-discard — he dashed off the first act of “Salesman” in single day.
Indeed, the play’s events occupy just a couple of days, and accordingly, Director Brad Dell keeps pedal to the metal. The opening sequence spirals up and down through shifting pools of light, now in the shadowy kitchen, now in the better-lit master bedroom. As for the sons’ room, the lighting’s decent but the space too small for two men long out of high school. Everywhere, Jay Jaglim’s set keeps things off-kilter. The backdrop of dark girders and high-rises leans in on the softer hues of the Lomans’ house.
Amid all this, Willy teeters between settling for less and going out in a blaze of insurance money. His quandary parallels Jimmy Stewart’s in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” both men are worth more dead than alive, but instead of a Christmas angel, Miller’s salesman has the disdainful ghost of a brother who struck it rich.

John Robinson nails the brother, his pomposity spot-on, and other regulars like Shawn Wilson and Alice Tschetter-Siedschlaw shuttle skillfully between laughter and heartache. Also Dan Haymes, a recent Iowa returnee, captures the clueless glad-handing of Willy’s boss; Kailen Fleck, in his local debut, makes a sympathetic nerd.

Still, the impact of “Salesman” depends as much on the two sons as on Mom and Pop. No sooner does the wife soothe her husband, up in their bedroom, than the boys start bouncing off the walls in theirs. So Ben Sheridan and Tom Gill contribute a lot with their sheer physicality, either thrusting out their chests or crumpling crestfallen. But they’ve got subtler effects as well, like the fearful undercurrent in their boasting. The brothers too achieve spontaneous combustion — making this the rare show that hits on all cylinders.

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