Willy Loman (Mark Mann, standing) upbraids ne’er-do-well son Biff (Jay Hobson) in SRO’s production of Death of a Salesman (Dale Bush Photography)
When playwright Arthur Miller directed Death of a Salesman in Beijing some 30 years ago, the tragedy was a hit with Chinese audiences. That surprised some: How could citizens of a socialist country relate to a play about the victim of a capitalist system? But Miller’s 1949 work is more than an attack on economic injustice. It’s also the story of a self-deluded man and his dysfunctional family. Most centrally, it’s about the strained relationship between Willy Loman and his favorite son, Biff, an ex-high school jock who’s never been able to get his life together. The scene in which the tension between them finally explodes is the most powerful moment of SRO’s current production, and probably of most productions. Willy, the titular traveling salesman, is a man of 60-plus years who’s been reduced to working for commissions on ever-shrinking sales. Not only has he been unable to pay his bills—a fact he’s hidden from his wife, Linda—but it’s become increasingly clear that he can’t count on his less-than-successful sons for support. Compounding his problems, he’s begun “talking” to people from his past as he tries to figure out where his life took a wrong turn. Again and again, he wonders if it all went south when he turned down a chance to follow his adventurous older brother north to Alaska. It’s a layered, complex play that touches not only on economics but on aging and family dynamics. In general, SRO’s current production handles it all well thanks to Dee Shepherd’s sensitive direction. Even so, last Thursday’s opening-night performance suggested that a little honing could make it even better. Mark Mann is one of Central Ohio’s most powerful actors, and he shows it in his portrayal of the iconic Willy Loman. While this is usually a good thing, he might be wise to pull back on the bombast more often to show us the chinks in Willy’s psychological armor. Another minor gripe: In flashback scenes, Stephen R. Hanna’s portrayal of next-door neighbor Bernard as a nerdy, adenoidal teen seems like an unexpected guest from a sitcom. That problem disappears during scenes from the “present,” however, as the young-adult Bernard is far less exaggerated. The other actors mostly serve their parts well. On opening night, Jay Hobson and Ian Klingenberg were at first unconvincing as Biff and his skirt-chasing brother, Happy, but they were fully committed to their characters by the time that devastating climax rolled around. As their mother, Linda, Josie Merkle is the epitome of maternal myopia and wifely devotion, ready to excuse her sons and especially her husband during their frequent stumbles. Other key cast members include George Matchneer as Charley, Bernard’s kind-hearted father, and Alan McClintock as Willy’s deified brother Ben. Jim Keller’s set appears to have been made on the cheap, but it serves the purpose in a tale that largely takes place in Willy’s head. Curtis A. Brown’s lighting helps to delineate the boundaries between memory and reality. Revisited 64 years after its premiere, Death of a Salesman has a few moments that now seem stagy and self-important. But as a portrait of a man who’s been victimized by forces without and within, it remains as relevant as ever. INFO: SRO Theatre Company will present Death of a Salesman through Sunday at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave. Show times: 10:30 a.m. Friday (discount matinee: adult/senior tickets $15), 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 3 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $20, $17 for seniors (55-plus), $15 for SRO members, $10 for students. 614-258-9495 or

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