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Arts & Culture

'Death of a Salesman' at Mad Cow Theatre

Attention must be paid to this nearly flawless production

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Death of a Salesman

through Aug. 25 | Mad Cow Theatre, 54 W. Church St. | 407-297-8788 | madcowtheatre.com | $15-$34

Tackling one of the towering classics of theater is always tricky. At best, the play’s an exquisitely preserved corpse, and at worst the audience exits wondering why this crap was ever considered a “classic” in the first place. That’s why it’s so refreshing to review Mad Cow Theatre’s revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, arguably the most important work of postwar American drama. Having had 20 years of experience with the play (both behind the scenes and in the audience) I can comfortably claim that this is the fastest, funniest, most deeply felt Salesman I’ve seen.

Let’s skip the synopsis (if you weren’t forced to read the 1949 Pulitzer- and Tony-winner in school, Netflix the 1985 Dustin Hoffman/John Malkovich film version) and start with Mad Cow’s stellar cast, headlined by Eric Zivot as the titular doorstepper.

Zivot, with his careworn brow and graying Groucho mustache, powerfully physicalizes the shifting self-contradictions of Willy Loman’s decaying persona: broken-shouldered and bitter in his present, facing forced retirement after a lifetime of unrewarded toil; clear-eyed and confident in his memories of the “old times,” extolling the importance of being “well-liked” to his adoring sons. Aided by some intentionally unsettling staging choices, Zivot’s Loman pivots delicately between pitiable pawn and pompous jerk, never letting the audience easily decide whether Willy is a tragic hero or the true villain.

Matching Zivot moment for moment, Robin Olson takes Willy’s wife Linda (frequently played as a subservient doormat) and inserts a spine of steel. From her iconic “attention must be paid” rant in Act One to her climactic soul-shattering scream, Olson’s eyes blaze with the ferocity of Linda’s fear and love for her flawed lifemate.

Rounding out our archetypal off-kilter nuclear family, Matt Horohoe has the meathead physicality to make a good Biff, but even better is the bewildered baby boy that emerges when he’s disillusioned by dad. Likewise, Daniel Cooksley has Happy’s “philandering bum” down pat (he previously played the role in Theatre Downtown’s solid 2009 staging) and his impish peacemaking side has sharpened.

Salesman’s secondary characters are all equally compelling, with Mark Edward Smith (Ben), Thomas Mesrobian (Charley), Tommy Keesling (Howard) and Becky Eck (the Woman) all finding fresh notes in their enigmatic or utilitarian roles. Special mention must also be made of William Elliott’s exposed-construction set and Kurt Wagner’s soundtrack (inspired by Debussy and modal jazz), which both smartly deviate from the overly familiar original Broadway designs. Final kudos go to director Tim Williams’ tightly paced dialogue and seamless scene transitions for making the moments until Loman’s inevitable end fly by. Willy may be theater’s ultimate emblem of elevating style over substance, but Mad Cow’s take has more than enough of both.

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