Encore Michigan

Flint Rep’s ‘Death of A Salesman’ shines and soars

Review September 25, 2022 David Kiley

FLINT, MI–Patrons of the Flint Repertory Theatre have gotten used to seeing new works, and reinventions of classic and well-worn shows that cast a new luster on plays and musicals we have seen many times.

In the company’s new production of Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman, Director Michael Lluberes had the good sense to meet the Pulitzer Prize winning script where it is on its traditional terms, and stage a truly compelling and wonderful production.

The genius in Salesman was Miller’s capacity to capture in the post-war mid-1940s a truth about men, fathers, husbands seeking to get ahead and succeed that is as true today and then. “The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell,”  the prosperous Charley next door tells Willy. Willy sees the secret to success as being “well-liked.” Both things are true. Then, as now, succeeding as a cog in someone else’s machine often boils down to being well-liked rather than solidly competent. Those who aren’t, or who don’t want to play the game, start their own businesses, or are doomed to a life of unmet expectations and dreams that blow away like dandelion seeds. Though Willy is an old-world sales rep for an apparel company, he could just as easily be a 2022 Ford executive, an ad agency account executive or any of the thousands of positions held by people trying to provide for their families and keep a non-leaky roof over the heads.

No director worth his or her salt goes into staging the Miller classic, often ranked or rated as the greatest play of the twentieth century, lightly. Credit Lluberes with assembling a stellar cast of principles to make good on the responsibility of staging Salesman. Lewis J. Stadlen comes to Flint from New York, and is an accomplished Tony nominated Broadway actor. His “Willy” is perfectly and justly painful to see unfold on the stage as he inhabits this struggling, imperfect everyman living a life of quiet desperation, delusion and walking the tightrope of hope and hopelessness as he gradually loses his faculties. Stadlen’s portrayal is Broadway worthy, and in fact is better than more famous actors who have carried Willy’s sample cases.

Michael Lopetrone, who plays the struggling son “Biff” is well-known to Michigan audiences in productions at Flint Rep, Detroit Public Theatre and other theatres, returned to Flint from New York to take on the role that is so central to the play–a reluctant chip off Willy’s block who is beset with the consequences of bad choices and returns home after a long absence to find that he is becoming his father–even as he insists on confronting him–in more ways than he can admit. Lopetrone has a great sense of the character and amps up his desperation in just the right balance to keep daylight between his Biff and Willy. Kevin O’Callaghan is a seasoned actor playing younger brother “Happy,” so named by Miller for his lack of depth and his ability to construct a pleasing life for himself with little regard to what happens tomorrow or next week. But O’Callaghan works with the superb writing to also let us know just how much he is another version of his father in a newer suit.

What is often missed in Salesman is that Willy’s long suffering wife, Linda, is really the backbone of the play. Indeed, Miller captured perfectly the role of the wife and mother among working-classic families in mid-century America.  Carolyn Gillespie as “Linda” inhabits Willy’s devoted wife with the mash-up of optimism and weariness that makes most audiences root for her–for a better life, even for a little while in what remains of her life. She is the only one in the family not deluded or dreamy. She simply loves Willy, and keeps holding on to the shreds that are left of the man she married as he breaks apart before her eyes.

Shane Cinal’s set lets us see into lives of the Lomans in all their various levels. The walls in the Loman home are made of wood lathe with no plaster or drywall. It is an apt metaphor that plays against the storyline of Willy being so good with his hands as a carpenter or mason. References to a great cement front porch he built contrasts with the bleakness and disrepair of the inside of the house.

The ensemble cast is first rate with particular praise to David Wohl as “Charley,” and Sarab Kamoo as “The Woman” in Willy’s past. Rico Bruce Wade as Uncle Ben brings a new dimension to the role, which is sometimes done as a fairly forgettable character. Not here. And Scott Anthony Joy excels in the sometimes thankless role of Bernard, the nerdy neighbor.

The Flint Rep again shows itself to both fearless and totally committed to every production in terms of casting, set design and every other investment it makes in a production. Lluberes’s choice of material to produce at The Flint Rep, and the company’s executions continue to impress.

Go to the theatre’s website for ticket sales and show information. https://flintrep.org/