The Richmond Hill Barn Theatre's Death of a Salesman marks one of James Driscoll's most powerful, effective, fully realized performances to date, which is saying a lot given the actor's résumé, which includes roles such as Long John Silver in the Playcrafters Barn Theatre's Treasure Island and his multiple characters in last year's Anton in Show Business for New Ground Theatre. During Friday's presentation, I was awed by Driscoll's ability to shift from sanity to a mental confusion bordering on insanity as his Willy Loman transitioned from his vision of his past to a moment in the present. Driscoll accomplishes this both through physical gestures, such as rubbing his head as if sweating, and vocal inflection, as his voice becomes more frantic and emotional during his state of confusion.
Director James Fairchild applies a gentle touch to playwright Arthur Miller's classic about a salesman re-living moments from his past, and how his actions affected his wife and two sons. Rather than forcing the emotional moments - over-directing them to ensure their impact - Fairchild seems to be relying on the actors' combined ability to share Miller's meaning in a more sincere way, and the approach works. His Death of a Salesman is effectively dependent on performances, not production values. (Costume designer Jackie Patterson's period selections - such as Willy's three-piece suit and his wife Linda's busily patterned black-and-gray dress and assortment of visually similar aprons - are certainly laudable, though.)
As Linda, Jackie Skiles' performance starts off seeming somewhat affected, but her approach makes sense once it's clear that Linda's meek smile and careful, doting nature are affectations, as the long-suffering wife has learned to adapt to her husband's frantic, odd, sometimes abusive behavior. Skiles really takes off, though, when Linda reaches her breaking point, unleashing her angry accusations on her sons for not being around more often, and then for upsetting their father when they are with him. With her angry shouts, tinged with undertones of sadness, forcing tears to her eyes, this Linda is a powerhouse, a woman to be feared, as she protects her emotionally injured husband.
Dana Moss-Peterson admirably stretches his acting chops by portraying Willy's eldest son Biff as self-assured, even cocky, in the flashback scenes, and then, in the play's 1949 present, as a broken man, but one still driven by anger at his father's past indiscretions. Justin Raver, as Willy's younger son Happy, fits his character's name, expressing a generally amiable nature that turns lustier as he ages.
Bryan Woods also deserves applause for his portrayal of Willy's young neighbor Bernard. Woods' Bernard often seems meekly exasperated as he tries to help his idol, Biff, academically, and turns almost whiny as he begs Biff to not cancel their math-tutoring appointment. As Bernard, Woods is the quintessential hero-worshipping, begging-to-belong nerd.
I was actually surprised that the audience didn't give the cast a standing ovation at the end of Friday's performance, given the emotional reactions I heard during the most poignant scenes, and the excellent performances from every actor in Richmond Hill's production. Fairchild deserves to share in those accolades for presenting an appropriately toned staging of Death of a Salesman in a way that feels both nostalgic and sincere.
Death of a Salesman runs at the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre (600 Robinson Drive, Geneseo) through April 21, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)944-2244 or visiting RHPlayers.com.