The Rep’s “Death of a Salesman” strikes a contemporary chord

Gary Neal Johnson and Merle Moores in "Death of a Salesman.".  Photo by Don Ipock.

Gary Neal Johnson and Merle Moores in "Death of a Salesman.". Photo by Don Ipock.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. –

In 2010, the Denver Post conducted a nationwide survey of 177 theater experts and students to compile a list of the “10 most important American plays ever written.”

Topping the list was Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” the classic 1949 drama described as “Greek in scope and tragedy…a working-class ‘Oedipus Rex.’”

Perhaps what’s most remarkable about the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s current production of Miller’s dark opus is the contemporary feel of its themes. In our era of financial uncertainty, Miller’s vision is unnervingly relevant.

Gary Neal Johnson leads the cast as middle-aged peddler Willy Loman, the role that famously drove famed actor Lee J. Cobb to a nervous breakdown. The scars of an unfulfilled American dream are etched in the phony smile lines left from countless days of schmoozing his clients.

Getting by on “a smile and a shoeshine,” Willy is the master of self-deception. But it’s not his profession that wears on Willy. His preconceived notions of what constitute success in life -as measured by the accomplishments of his wealthy brother- set expectations levels that could never be reached.

Director Eric Rosen has mounted a dignified production of this venerable standard, skillfully fleshed out by Johnson and an all-local cast.

Providing solid support is Merle Moores as Willy’s long-suffering but ever-encouraging wife, Linda. Rusty Sneary is equally good as Biff, the eldest son with a more realistic worldview than Willy, who frustrates and infuriates his dad with his lack of ambition.

Kyle Hatley also makes an impression as Happy, Willy’s youngest son and an unapologetic womanizer. He’s perfectly willing to put on a counterfeit façade to keep the peace in the family.

As the late Ben Loman, seen in Willy’s flashback hallucinations, Kip Niven is the personification of Willy’s idea of success. Willy can’t accept that Ben’s level of prosperity can, in reality, only be achieved by an elite few.

Cheryl Weaver, Brian Paulette and Mark Robbins, three of our area’s best actors, stand out in the strong ensemble that includes MFA students from the UMKC Department of Theatre Acting Program.

As always, the KCRT production values are sound. Meghan Raham’s stark stage design, the appropriate period costumes from Lindsay W. Davis and Lauren Gaston, Victor En Yu Tan’s expressive lighting and Larry Bailey’s poignant music hit all the bull’s eye.

Although many people are quick to point out the play’s many flaws (just as there are those ready to pick apart the film “Citizen Kane” in spite of its perennial place atop annual critics’ polls), “Death of a Salesman” is essential viewing for anyone striving for theater literacy. The Rep’s rendition provides a strong introduction for newbies or, for theater veterans, a potent reminder of its virtues.

“Death of a Salesman” runs through February 10th at the Spencer Theatre, 4949 Cherry Street, Kansas City, Mo. For tickets, visit www.kcrep.org or call 816-235-2700.

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