Austin Playhouse provides a smartly directed, boldly performed ‘Salesman’

There are certain plays that hold a special place not just in the world of theatre, but in the public conscience. Tartuffe, Romeo and Juliet, The Cherry Orchard, A Doll’s House: all of these have become cultural touchstones as much as performance pieces.. With this esteem also comes a challenge for anyone daring to put on one of these pieces, but Austin Playhouse is doing just this last with their latest production, Arthur Miller’s seminal masterwork, Death of a Salesman. It’s a classic tale of the hard-working but put-upon salesman Willy Loman, his attempt to provide a good life for his family, and the ruin that befalls him in the process. It’s been parodied, it’s been referenced, it even became a hit movie, and now Austin Playhouse is bringing it to the Austin stage. The move is undeniably bold on Austin Playhouse’s part, as how does bring any kind of freshness to a tale as oft-told as this one? With smart, stylish directing, and a strong, but sensitive performance at its core, Austin Playhouse’s production shows that Miller’s classic play still has a lot of life left in it, as they create a Death of a Salesman that feels as relevant and alive today as it was nearly seventy years ago.

 

Despite it’s fame, Death of a Salesman can be a difficult play to stage. Throughout the play, events from the past and future occur almost simultaneously, and in the wrong hands, this could end up as a confusing mess. Luckily, Austin Playhouse brought in acclaimed director Peter Sheridan to take the reins, and with clever staging techniques and firm grip on his vision, he’s created a way to make the action flow naturally, and, most impressively, he’s made it affecting. By cordoning off the moments that occur in the past from those that happen in the present, he’s created a visual metaphor, a physical disconnect between Loman’s two worlds. He’s aided greatly in this task by his lighting director, Playhouse regular Don Day, who’s provided some of his best work here, with lighting cues that provide even more separation, keeping color pallets and hues separate between the bygone days and Loman’s current grind. Of course, one can’t deny the part our lead, Marc Pouhe, plays in all this, as his vocal inflection, physicality, and even facial tics change between his two timelines to make a clear delineation.

 

Anyone who has seen Marc Pouhe perform knows he brings a presence. The moment he walks on stage, it’s nearly impossible to look away. His combination of bold charm and commanding confidence make him a force of nature, and here he allows the audience to see new depths to his talent. Willy Loman is a character of many different facets, and it can be a task to play each of those facets believably, but by imbuing Loman with charm in the early stages, his emotional arc throughout the play becomes that much more believable. In a bad production, Loman becomes a shouting monster by play’s end, but with Pouhe, we see the fury slowly seep in throughout, like storm clouds gathering before a roaring tempest. Even in his most furious moments, there’s a sorrow in the back of his voice, a real pathos to his performance. Pouhe is an actor who’s given many great performances, but his Willy Loman should be remembered as one of his best.

 

The Death of a Salesman that Austin Playhouse provides this month is a piece reinvigorated, reminding us that its themes are as relevant as ever. Some of the supporting performances may not live up to the high level set by Pouhe, but there’s no denying that this production is an enlightening, enjoyable, and enriching experience. If you haven’t seen Death of a Salesman before, this is a great introduction, and for those who have seen it, Austin Playhouse’s version may show you sides to the play you may not have seen before.

 

Death of a Salesman plays through March 12th at Austin Playhouse. For more information, and purchase tickets, visit AustinPlayhouse.com.

 

Image courtesy of Austin Playhouse.

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