Houston Theatre Company's Death of a Salesman "Barest and Boniest"

The set up: The power of Arthur Miller's masterpiece, Death of a Salesman, comes through even in a bare-bones production, and the presentation from the Houston Theatre Company is the barest and the boniest that one could possibly imagine.

The execution: Stripped-down theater permits the writing and the acting to take center stage, which can be admirable. Much of the acting here, but not all, survives even poor lighting that often leaves the players in shadow while the audience is illuminated.

The two sons of salesman Willy Loman are well-played - Alex Ozburn is convincing as the young athletic Biff and captures the emotional pain of the mature Biff struggling between a craving for honesty and a lifetime of taking the easy way out. Hamilton Boyd as Happy creates a credible bond with Biff - we believe they are brothers - and later shows Happy's libertine side as an adult. Alane Johnson plays Linda Loman, and captures the sweetness of her love - and respect - for Willy, as well as the steel spine necessary to protect him from ridicule. John J. Zipay is excellent in several roles, especially that of Harold, Willy's boss. Edmund Pantuliano is very effective as Charlie, the steadfast friend of Willy.

Louis Provenzano plays Willy Loman, and might be very good in a different play, but here he fails to find the soul of Willy. He plays him as a sad sack throughout, whereas Willy's pretensions must be sufficiently plausible to merit Biff's hero-worship, before the revelatory scene in the Boston hotel. We see no decline, no hint of a man of potential seduced by a misguided dream, just one of life's losers with the truth not in him.

Neophyte director Al Caraballo must shoulder some of the responsibility here. Provenzano joins some distinguished actors in failing in this role, and it may be that his medium height is wrong for it. The great actors in it on Broadway were Lee J. Cobb in the original 1949 production, George C. Scott in 1975, and Brian Dehenny in 1999, all actors of imposing physical stature with a commanding presence - we can see why they once were successful salesmen. Even height is no guarantee - Arthur Miller saw 6'1" Hal Holbrook perform it in Miami and Boston, but refused to let him do it on Broadway.

The verdict: This is a "memory" play, resonating with flashbacks, and it is a subtle play, despite some explicit signposts from Miller. It's better served when the stagecraft assets of set and lighting can enhance its magic. It has been known to make strong men weep - that will not happen here - but the new production company deserves credit for recognizing its rich merits and bringing them to us, even in a venue that is a lecture hall more than a theater. Through June 18, Houston Theatre Company at Jones Hall, University of St. Thomas, 3910 Yoakum Drive, 713-478-9421.

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Jim Tommaney