Originally Posted Online: April 17, 2013, 10:29 am
Last Updated: April 18, 2013, 1:56 pm

Delivering a towering tragedy with heart, skill

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By Jonathan Turner, jturner@qconline.com

Photo:
Jim Driscoll plays Willy Loman, and Jackie Skiles is his wife, Linda, in Richmond Hill Players' production of "Death of a Salesman."

What a difference 12 years makes.

In 2001, Jim Driscoll, of Davenport, played Biff in Arthur Miller's towering tragedy, "Death of a Salesman," at Playcrafters Barn Theatre, Moline. Now, he's the crushed central character (and Biff's father) Willy Loman in the 1949 Pulitzer- and Tony-winning classic at Richmond Hill Players, Geneseo.

While I didn't see the Playcrafters version, Mr. Driscoll offers a deeply moving portrayal here of afailing traveling salesman (careening toward retirement, irrelevance and suicide) who can't understand how he didn't achieve success and happiness. Willy is profoundly tortured and Mr. Driscoll expertly reveals the whiplash-inducing shifts among commanding self-assurance, dreams of the future, a raging, insensitive temper, and paralyzing self-doubt and fear.

"Salesman" is a heavy drama in many ways -- it solemnly addresses the weighty subjects of a man's worth in work and family; a wife and mother's selfless devotion to her spouse and children, and the two sons' quest for identity, love (of themselves and a significant other), a purpose in life and meeting a father's great expectations. While we never see Willy "driving," the entire staggering scope of the play feels like an inexorable, sickeningly terrible ride toward tragedy (which, of course, it is).

The most consistent source of tension and drama comes in the scenes between Willy and Biff, here embodied by the imposing, outstanding Dana Moss-Peterson. At 34, Willy's older son Biff was a high school football star (as we see in flashback), but failed math his senior year and dropped out of school after seeing his father with another woman while visiting him in Boston (as we also see in its shock and awkwardness).

Biff has gone through several unsatisfying jobs and says he's happiest working outside as a farmhand. But he agonizingly wrestles with his confusion over what he should be and how to live up to what his father wants for him. We hear Willy call him a "lazy bum," his mother say he's "just lost," but Mr. Driscoll clearly shows he wants the best for Biff, helping line up a fateful job interview for him.

Mr. Moss-Peterson displays an authoritative intensity in voice and mannerisms that is riveting to behold. The play shows the depth of unresolved issues between Biff and Willy, and when they erupt in volcanic argument, the emotional lava is hot and devastating. It's hard to watch, but certainly makes for electrifying theater.

The forceful supporting cast at Richmond Hill includes Bryan Woods as Bernard, Ann Keeney-Grafft as the "other woman," Bill Hudson as Charley, Bruce Carmen as Uncle Ben, Nathan Johnson as Howard, Josh LeFebvre as Stanley, Stacy McKean Herrick as Miss Forsythe and Molly McLaughlin as Letta.

James Fairchild, of Rock Island, helms the heartbreaking show with a firm, persuasive hand, noting in the program how ecstatic he is to be directing one of the greatest plays in American theater. Mr. Fairchild and the earnest, believable cast bring tremendous honor and dignity to a timeless work that continues to teach us about family, love and dedication.





If you go


-- What: "Death of a Salesman"
-- When: 7:30 p.m. tonight, Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday.
-- Where: The Barn Theater atop Richmond Hill Park in Geneseo.
-- Tickets: $10, available by calling 309-944-2244 or visiting rhplayers.com.