Ti-Ahwaga actors tap into depth of ‘Death of a Salesman’ characters

Reviewd by George Basler

With Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller created one of the great dramas of the 20th century and one of the towering figures of American literature: Willy Loman, the doomed salesman of the title. So, I was more than a little worried while driving up Route 17 to Owego to watch the Ti-Ahwaga Community Players launch their season with a production of Miller’s classic play. The non-profit troupe can claim the title as the oldest, continually active community theater in upstate New York, but tackling Miller’s masterpiece is a daunting task for any non-professional, community theater. I dreaded the possibility of a very long evening.

The good news is that I didn’t need to worry. The Ti-Ahwaga actors, under the direction of James Osborne, turn in a solid and effective production that captures the emotion of  Miller’s great play about self-delusion, Oedipal confrontations between fathers and sons and what constitutes success, or failure, in American life. The production will run through Oct. 21.

Let me make one admission up front. Before seeing the Ti-Ahwaga production, I had never seen a live performance of Death of a Salesman (I had seen a television production). Therefore, I lack the perspective to compare Ti-Ahwaga’s production with other stagings of the play, which has been revived five times on Broadway alone. All I know is that the Ti-Ahwaga production held my attention throughout and, in the end, left me emotionally  moved by Willy’s fate. While the first act may be a bit flat, the second act more than conveys the humanity and power of  Miller’s great work.

Miller said Death of a Salesman reflected his belief that “the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were.” Willy Loman is, indeed, a tragic character as he struggles to maintain his dignity while his world, built to a large extent on false and futile dreams, falls apart around him.

For the play to work, however, there has to be a touch of outward strength in Willy — a seeming confidence that his two sons once worshiped — so his desperation and deterioration provoke a real sense of loss.

Greg Fusare, who plays Willy, does a first-rate job  portraying this outward confidence, although the interpretation may be a bit overdone in the first act. In the second act, Fusare reaches deep inside the character to effectively convey the growing desperation of the conflicted and deluded man. His Willy seems to almost physically shrink on the stage as his portrayal grows in emotional intensity.

Deborah Schaaf, Stephen Marquardt and Ryan Kay, who play the other members of the Loman family, also deserve a great deal of credit for their performances. Schaaf avoids the trap of playing Linda Loman as a mousy doormat. While loyal to a fault, her Linda conveys real anger in confronting the sons’ indifference toward Willy. She also shows the heartache of a woman who loves a man despite his flaws and limitations but realizes that won’t save him.

As Biff, the older son, Marquardt does a good job portraying the cocksure attitude of the young golden boy son, although doesn’t quite catch the burned-out despair of the old Biff. His final confrontation scenes with Willy, however, are played perfectly as the character mixes love for his father with the self-realization of both of their limitations, and his need to break free from Willy’s dreams to have any hope of salvation. Kay is effective in portraying Happy Loman as a study in male vanity while surface charm conceals a basic emptiness underneath.

The rest of the cast is fine as well. Particularly notable is Stan Zawatsky as Charly, the Lomans’ next door neighbor, whose success and compassion represents the bright side of the American dream in contrast to Willy’s dark side.

Osborne, who is directing his eighth production for Ti-Ahwaga, says Death of a Salesman retains an uncanny relevance given the country’s current economic malaise. But the Ti-Ahwaga production doesn’t look to make political points. Indeed, Miller’s play isn’t really a political work, but a story about individuals trying to come to terms with the question of what constitutes success and what constitutes failure. Perhaps, that’s why the play continues to resonate so deeply. Everybody’s going to fail at something, despite their best efforts and dreams. In other words, we’re all Willy Loman.

Ti-Ahwaga Community Players deserves kudos for their effort. The rest of the group’s season is equally challenging, with the company taking on  The Miracle Worker, Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, Avenue Q and the annual A Christmas Story. Based on their work in Salesman, it looks like more trips to Owego will be on my calendar.

About the show: Ti-Ahwaga Community Players Inc. is located at 42 Delphine St., Owego. Death of a Salesman will be performed Oct. 12-14 and 19-21 with Friday and Saturday performances at 8 p.m. and Sunday performances at 2 p.m. Tickets are $18 ($10 for students with ID on Friday, and $15 for ages 60 and older on Sundays). For ticket information and reservations, call (607) 687-2130. The group’s website is www.tiahwaga.com.

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