From the moment he despondently lugs his display cases onto the stage, Peter VanWagner is Willie Loman in the Cumberland County Playhouse production of Death of a Salesman. The play was written by Arthur Miller and first produced in 1949. Yet this is a contemporary tale of family relationships with all their joys and pain. It is a drama of the meaning of life and death. It is a study of corporate power and of aging.

Throughout the evening, we are moved by the ability of Peter VanWagner to portray exhaustion, anger, pride and hope within a few seconds. We witness the gradual disintegration of a man and of his family. VanWagner brings us a Willie Loman who wants desperately to be a good husband, a caring father and a fine salesman, respected and loved by all who know him.

VanWagner allows us to feel Willie's unexpressed but deeply felt love for his son, Biff. Biff has been Willie's hope. Biff's life would be a success. Biff would be "well-liked." Andre Pitre plays Biff as the high school athlete with slicked down hair who never grew up. Confusion and frustration flow from Pitre's being as he struggles to know who he is. Emotionally destroyed as he realizes the vulnerability of the father whom he loved and trusted, Biff hangs onto his talisman of past glory: his football. Petre gives a performance that leads the audience to become frustrated and angry at Biff, yet unable to give up on him.

Happy, Willie's younger son, is basically overlooked by his dad. Ken Quiricone plays Happy, with agility and skill. Whether doing push-ups, assuring his father he is losing weight, even trying to say he is to be married, Quiricone is always in motion. There are moments when he portrays maturity in sharp contrast to Biff. Quiricone captures the many sides of this troubled young man who, just when we feel he has changed, falls apart as a deadbeat womanizer.

VanWagner is especially fine as he moves back and forth from reality to memory. He connects with the shadow figure of his brother Ben, played by Playhouse newcomer David Sider. Costume designers Quinn Fortune and Renee Luttrell have garbed Ben in a white suit and white hat. As Ben, Sider projects power, superiority, and a driven-ness that does not allow him to wait for his younger brother to decide to accompany his to Alaska. Sider plays him as one who cannot even stop to calculate directions. He intended to go to Alaska and ended up in Africa. Representing the success Willie so longs for, Ben entered the jungle at seventeen and came out a millionaire at twenty-one.

John Fionte skillfully portrays Willie's neighbor and only friend Charlie. Fionte reflects the caring and the exasperation of seeking to help Willie. Whether entering robed for bed because he has heard a noise, dressed in knickers to for a day of sport, in his office as a successful businessman or as a mourner at Willie's death, Charlie is present. This is a tough role. Fionte plays it brilliantly. Charlie must be sensitive to Willie's every mood as well as to the Loman family's needs. Fionte has designed sets that have enhanced shows at the Playhouse for four years. It is a joy to this talented member of the Playhouse family on stage.

We witness an amazing character transformation by Ross Schexnayder. In his youth, Bernard, Charlie's son, is a nerd encouraging Willie's son Biff to study. He is the victim of Biff and Happy's endless put-downs due to his lack of athletic prowess. It takes a moment to realize that it is Schexnayder whom we see in the second act as a young lawyer, heading off to Washington to argue a case before the Supreme Court. Self-assured, yet willing to share a hug with his dad, Schexnayder presents a young man who has truly matured.

Patty Payne brings an amazing portrayal of Linda Loman. She is the anchor of the family and the support of Willie's life. She is also the target of his frustrated abuse. Payne is filled with nervous energy as the adoring wife who sees her husband falling apart before here eyes yet is ever-ready with an excuse for his actions. She offers easy solutions to complex problems. Payne plays her as the protector, nervously trying to cover for Willie. When he is ready to go to work with three ties around his neck, she casually ties one and removes the others.

Payne portrays her as loving her boys while exasperated at their lack of responsibility. She wants to believe they are a loving family. She loves Willie despite his verbal abuse and his inability to relate to her. "Attention must be paid," Linda says. Payne projects a deep love for this man who is big and old and stupid in the eyes of the world but a great man in her eyes. With the house nearly paid for after 25 years, she listens tolerantly to his dream of building a guesthouse, while she mends the lining of his worn-out suit coat. Payne exudes the poignancy of Linda.

VanWagner and Payne complement one another in these challenging roles. A wide variety of tangled emotions must be felt by the audience in order for this play to be fully realized. As a reviewer and one who had seen the play several times, I experienced the nuances of emotion deeply. VanWagner tears at our heartstrings with his outbursts of anger. I cringed at his abuse of Linda and at her ready acceptance of her lot in life.

Director Robillard keeps the play in the time period of its writing. I mused after this intense evening at the theater as to how it might have been set in the present. Are formerly "well-liked" salesmen forgotten, passed over for promotions today? What happens to the worker whose abilities are beginning to slip? How often is the long-time employee eased out of a position? How frequently does loneliness and temptation lead to an error that changes the lives of all members of the family? These are only a few of the questions that left the theater with me.

This show is very intense. It would be difficult for younger children. For teenagers as well as adults, there is potential for discussion of the major issues presented in Death of a Salesman. (The Web even provides discussion questions.)

I rejoice that director Nancy Robillard and Peter VanWagner have brought us their skills in a revival of timeless play. Thank you, Jim Crabtree, for bringing them to Crossville. It is a theater experience you do not want to miss.

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