by Gerry Roe
Coralville - On entering the little theatre in the Children’s Museum for Dreamwell’s production of Death of a Salesman we see a room apparently set up for a rehearsal. A table and some chairs, curtains represent doors, and that’s about it. But then the players arrive, heralded by the melancholy sounds of a solo flute, to bring the play to life, to transcend the limited physical aspects of their space, to remind us or to introduce us to the greatness of what we are about to see.
Arthur Miller’s 1949 script was awarded the Pulitzer prize and a Tony for best play of 1949. The production directed by Elia Kazan, with Lee J. Cobb and Mildred Dunnock, and an iconic two-story set by Jo Mielziner, firmly established Miller and the play as significant developments in American theatre. The role of Willy Loman has been inhabited by Dustin Hoffman, Brian Dennehy, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and hundreds of other actors in countless professional, academic, and amateur productions.
No matter how many times you may have seen this play, you need to see this Dreamwell production. It is evidence of how good, how true, and how powerful amateur productions can be. There is an adage about there being no small parts, only small actors. Dreamwell's cast, from the leads to the very smallest role, disproves that claim. Director David Pierce has assembled an exceptional pool of Iowa City area actors and allowed or cajoled them into becoming a solid company devoted to each other and to the presentation of a remarkable theatrical experience.
It is not possible in a review to discuss each actor’s contribution to the production but I have to recognize performances of a few key players. Rip Russell’s Willy Loman is a fascinating portrait of a man in crisis. He is unable to keep himself from remembering every failure as outstanding success or transforming every accomplishment of his sons to wildly exaggerated promises of greatness. Russell’s Willy Loman is a man who has to be the hero of every situation, whose memories are self-promoting, and who can never, in his conversations with others, admit defeat. Only when he is alone does he admit his fears. Russell is quiet in these soliloquies. With everyone else he is loud, autocratic, and boastful. Willy is not a liar, he is a man unable to face reality.
Linda, Willy’s wife, makes every attempt to be supportive, though Willy’s steadily decreasing income is of real concern to her. She is devoted to her husband in spite of his disregard for her feelings. Krista Neumann’s Linda is self-effacing with Willy, but a tiger with her sons because she sees them inflating their dreams, following their father’s distorted views of reality. Neumann is heartbreaking in her silent acceptance of Willy’s utter disregard for her, quietly submitting to his barked “I’m talking” or “Let me talk.” Her final scene is beautifully performed and totally devastating.
Willy’s sons, Biff and Happy, are played by Matt Falduto and Brad Quinn, each of them giving fully rounded portrayals. Both are experienced actors but both surpass expectations. Falduto’s Biff is better able to see Willy as he really is, because he know something about Willy’s shortcomings but he cannot share that experience with anyone, not even his brother. I’ve seen these actors in many different performances but they are truly exceptional in this production.
If I had to quibble about the production it would be to say that there is a lot of shouting and the acoustics sometimes interfered with comprehension; however, in fairness, this was the first performance in this space and may well be resolved for remaining performances. This is community theatre at its best. The production runs through May 16th at Iowa Children’s Museum in Coralville.Tickets are available here.