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Outstanding Performances Sell Cincinnati Shakespeare’s “Death of a Salesman”

Review by Gregory Bossler of Death of a Salesman: Cincinnati Shakespeare Company

Bruce Cromer and Annie Fitzpatrick in "Death of a Salesman"

Bruce Cromer and Annie Fitzpatrick in “Death of a Salesman”

Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller’s 1949 Pulitzer-winning indictment of the American Dream, is among a handful of classic American plays that remain as relevant today as when written. And it is receiving the full Shakespearean treatment in a robustly paced production at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company this month, which marks the playwright’s centenary.

Bruce Cromer is compelling as the title character Willy Loman, a Brooklyn everyman who embodies the 99 percent. Even when stooped under the actual (or imagined) weight of his traveling merchandise, Cromer’s Willy is in constant motion, rummaging through his suit pockets for a handkerchief to wipe his brow or to clean his glasses, a telling physical expression of the desperate and confused grasping in his everyday life.

Linda Loman is written somewhat as a two-dimensional saintly spouse, but Annie Fitzpatrick illuminates the emotional grounding that Willy’s wife provides him (and the play). Another problematic role is Charley, Willy’s only friend, but Jim Hopkins skillfully travels from the easy teasing banter of the opening scenes to the heart-rending final conversations, allowing us hints of what life could have been like for the Loman family.

Two of the show’s most pivotal scenes also provide standout moments in this production. Eldest son Biff, played by Justin McCombs, figuratively explodes and literally collapses to the floor as he asks forgiveness during his last confrontation with his father. And in the hotel scene, the parting glance from The Woman in Boston, played by Kelly Mengelkoch, ominously portends the beginning of the end for Willy.

Overall, the production elements are good. Stormie McClelland’s costumes aid the dreamlike atmosphere in shades of sepia and gray, with splashes of white and red for the idealized past and potential future, and Doug Borntrager’s sound design provides evocative incidental music, seamless offstage dialogue, and natural sound effects.

Andrew Hungerford’s set gives an appropriate sense of entrapment, particularly the looming fence backdrop that transforms into the beckoning (or oppressive) city. Still, since much of the action is in Willy’s head, director Brian Isaac Phillips might have streamlined the setting. His staging was effective in the spare hotel scene, but the tightly furnished set (nearly as cluttered as the attic in Miller’s later play The Price) forced a fair amount of action onto the slim downstage area and limited the machismo physicality that the script demands at times.

I was also slightly distracted by the accents that the company attempted. Some actors didn’t have a Brooklyn cadence, and others had too much, trying a bit hard to sound at home in New York, their earnestly studied enunciation veering dangerously close to caricature.

In the end, though, the script shone through and I had a lump in my throat (and a tear or two in my eye) at the emotional catharsis of Cromer’s Willy Loman.