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Death of a Salesman at Arts Theatre - Review

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by Georgina Tselekidis (subscribe)
Freelancer and aspiring journalist from Adelaide. Visual Arts graduate & current journalism student. Fashion, lifestyle, entertainment, art & food. I also write for The Adelaidian //
Published August 19th 2016
Losing oneself in the American dream
We all want to live a perfect life. To be liked, successful, even rich. But this isn't always the reality. In fact, it's this very illusion that stops us from enjoying the moment and appreciating the things we do have. Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman is one of the greatest scripts of all time, challenging these notions of reality vs illusion and the 'American dream', reminding us that life is in fact, not perfect at all. The Therry Dramatic Society bring it to life in their current production at the Arts Theatre. Moving, heartfelt and thought-provoking are a few words to describe Sue Wylies' adaptation of this classic much loved tale that had the crowd watching in angst as the story unfolded.

Death of a salesman, play, production, Adelaide, Therry Dramatic Society, SA, Arts Theatre, Angas Street, Performance, Arts in Adelaide, Arthur Miller
Photo Courtesy of The Therry Dramatic Society

Willy Loman is a 63-year-old salesman who is exhausted working in a commission only based role after being employed by the same company for over 32 years. As we're introduced to the main setting of the evening, Willy's wife Linda worries over his state of mind, as he talks to himself and seems to dissociate from reality. She suggests that he ask his boss Howard Wagner if he can work in his home city instead of travelling, but in the meantime Willy is distracted by flooding memories, as he keeps obsessing over the past and cannot accept that his 34-year-old son Biff is still trying to figure his life out. Biff was a promising athlete in high school who could have done so much more, but failing senior-year math is something that Willy cannot deal with, adding to his already fragile state of mind.

Biff and his brother Happy begin to notice their father's strange behaviour which sees him switch on and off and transition between memories and the present moment. In an attempt to make their father happy, Biff comes up with a plan to go into business with his former employer, although this is not what Biff truly wants out of life. In the meantime, Willy is fired and Biff's business prospect is turned down.

From here on we also learn of a massive secret that has shaped Biff's attitude toward his father who is portrayed as the idyllic role model. When Biff went to visit his father in Boston many years ago at a hotel, he discovered Willy was having an affair with a receptionist, which changed Biff's views of his father forever. In one of the final scenes, Biff and Willy get into a heated argument and Biff conveys that Willy needs to let go of the unrealistic expectations. However, Willy assumes that his son has forgiven him and as his wife Linda goes upstairs, Willy delves into another memory that drives him to commit suicide.

The final scene is at Willy's funeral which is attended only by his family, Bernard, and Charley (his friend and next door neighbour). Biff explains that he will never become a businessman like his father, yet his brother Happy intends to follow in his father's footsteps. Heartbroken and lonely, his wife Linda closes the play with her last words about her final payment on the mortgage that has now 'set them free'.

"...and there'll be nobody home. We're free and clear, Willy....we're free...we're free..."

David Grybowski as Willy Loman manages to engage the audience from his first scene until the very end, bringing about a personal touch to his role. He says that his father, who was 'one of the last travelling salesmen' is his role model in the play, and this connection is evident throughout David's performance and gripping onstage presence that definitely takes the viewer on a whirlwind journey through Willy's altered mental states, as he slips between reality and memory. Although Death of a Salesman is David's first performance with The Therry Dramatic Society, his experience as an actor shines as he evokes a sense of sadness and sorrow in the viewer by his representation of a lost and woeful man. Willy's moments of confusion and conversations with his brother Ben, are enhanced by the stark lighting by lighting designer Richard Parkhill, who manages to take us back and forth between the past and the current moment. Blackouts, spotlights and coloured hues make each character a stand out in their own way, giving each person a unique story to tell.

Of course, David's outstanding performance is accompanied by Cate Rogers as Linda Loman, who has been a part of many award-nominated productions. Also worth noting is Mark Healy as Happy Loman who last year, co-wrote, co-directed and acted in a Fringe production: Tinder Surprise. An actor to look out for is Adam Tuominen as Biff Loman, who slowly transitions into his role to create a dynamic impact that leaves the audience in utter shock. His first appearance onstage is a little slow, as Mark predominantly makes an impression in the beginning. But it's toward the middle of the play where Adam really evolves, almost outshining the other cast members. Many may recognise Adam from the Natural Gas ads as the 'gas guy' but it was a pleasant and unexpected surprise to see him flourish onstage in such an emotive role that brought the scripted character to life.

Greg Janzow as Uncle Ben Loman, Tom Carney as Charley, Carol Lawton as the other woman, Erin Walsh as Jenny, Megan Langford as Miss Forsythe, Thorin Cupit as Howard and Heath Trebilcock as Bernard work in harmony with one another in each of their scenes. All actors manage to reinterpret such a renowned text in an engrossing way, almost breaking the fourth-wall as they connect with the audience.

The team at The Therry Dramatic Society put on a poignant show, with the costume design, hair and makeup and set design transporting us to the setting of the play that was formulated by Miller in 1949. However, Arthur Miller's script addresses themes that even a contemporary audience can relate to in many ways, despite the difference in time and year, including loss of identity and the inability to accept change. Likewise, life's pressures, money worries and the ways we judge ourselves after making a mistake play a significant role in the story. We see this in Willy who continuously looks back at his sons' failures and in someway blames himself for the way their future panned out. Death of a Salesman still maintains to affect audiences because it allows us to reach within, looking at ourselves from a different perspective. We feel sorry for Willy who seems to be drowning in his own world of despair, slowly losing touch with reality. But, we also recognise Willy's incapability to accept that's he's just an ordinary salesman, reiterated when Biff says that they are both just 'ordinary men'. Instead of acknowledging the present, Willy retreats into the past and chooses to relive past memories, dissociating himself even more as the play goes on.

Director Sue Wylie stays true to the core of the story whilst transforming the respected narrative into a means of self-reflection. She has done an exceptional job, as she takes on a profound text that can be difficult to pull off, particularly with all the diverse shifting stage cues and actors appearing and disappearing between Willy's moments of disassociation.

Death of a Salesman is playing at the Arts Theatre in Angas Street until 20 August at 8 pm and Wednesday 24 to Saturday 27 August at 8 pm. You can book and purchase tickets here.

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Why? A gripping renowned story comes to life at the Arts Theatre
Phone: 8277 2778
Where: Arts Theatre
Cost: Adults $27, Concession $22, Student $12.
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