Skeleton Crew and Death of a Salesman Explore the American Dream

Last year, when Trinity Rep announced their season, I was almost giddy. It is an educator’s dream, beginning with Arthur Miller’s classic Death of a Salesman. I read it as a student and taught it this past summer; however, I have never seen it staged live. Then I learned that the show would be played in rep with Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew, and I was even more intrigued. You couldn’t have two more different ends of the spectrum — one play about the American Dream that is so classic, it’s studied in schools, and something so new, also about the American Dream, that I knew I had to see it. I saw these plays on two separate days, but they are an experience you need to discover together. With that in mind, we’re going to look at both plays in one review!  

I love it when sets reach out into the house. When you walk into the theater, Sara Brown’s set draws you in. You’re in this shambled set, where one can only imagine how the mind of Willy Loman works. As the set is the first thing that greets you, it’s a tremendous treat when the designer  designs a set that looms like the unseen character of the night. As I sat there that first night, I couldn’t help but wonder how the same set would work for Skeleton Crew, but Brown’s attention to detail makes it work.  

As a Rhode Island theatergoer, you really can’t lose when it comes to classic theater, and this repertory of performers. Stephen Berenson plays the doomed Willy Loman, and wow does he deliver a powerful performance. As much as the set contributed to Loman’s breakdown, Berenson’s performance brings it home. Full disclosure: I’ve never been a huge fan the Linda character. I don’t know why, so I have no real reason to confess my feelings, but there they are; I have never liked Linda and never thought the role could become a vital performance of the night. Phyllis Kay is the Linda Miller didn’t write, but should have. She is a force to be reckoned with in this production, and her need to keep things together is evident in every line, every glance, every movement. I really can’t say enough about her performance; she has truly changed my opinion of this character.

Rounding out this cast is Mauro Hantman as both Howard and Uncle Ben. Fred Sullivan Jr brought life to Charley, and third year Trinity Rep students Matt Lytle, Billy Hutto, and Tyler Herman were a real testament to the MFA program.

I’m going to be honest here: I left with tears in my eyes, and I wasn’t the only one.

And then there’s Skeleton Crew. As much as I loved Death of a Salesman, the one question that keeps running through my mind when it comes to Skeleton Crew is, when can I go back? Brown changes the set so that it resembles a break room, complete with lockers, coffee makers and a half eaten bag of donuts. You sit down and you feel that you’re in the break room. (In fact, my seats were on the set so I really did feel that I was taking a break with the actors!) This show features only one repertory member, Jude Sandy, who is quickly becoming a favorite of mine! Jude played Reggie, the supervisor caught in the middle of what he knows to be right and his own attainment of the American Dream. The show features two more MFA students, Will Adams plays Dez, who luckily is only in his second year, guaranteeing future audiences time to see this fantastic performer, and Shenyse LeAnna Harris plays Shanita. She’s a third-year student who we can only hope will join the company one day because she is a force to be reckoned with. (It should be noted that both Harris and Adams played smaller roles in Death of a Salesman.) This young cast can certainly hold their own. And hold their own they do playing opposite Lizan Mitchell, a Broadway and Off-Broadway veteran. This is where I would normally write that Mitchell plays Faye, the union rep who is down on her luck, who is there for everyone. However Lizan Mitchell is Faye. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to see anyone else in this role. Ever. To say she was fabulous is downplaying how wonderful she was. All I can really say is, go out and see this show!

Even the directors are from two different sides of the spectrum. On one hand you have Trinity veteran Brian McEleny at the helm of Death of a Salesman. Besides acting and directing at Trinity Rep, he is also the head of the MFA Acting program. Why bring this up in a review? Skeleton Crew is directed by Tiffany Nichole Greene, who hold an MFA from Brown/Trinity Rep. This fall rep is literally a case of the student becoming the teacher. The plays work in rep so well as the American Dream has stayed the same, only the struggles are different. Whereas Death of a Salesman has been our past when it comes to the American Dream on stage, it passes the baton to Skeleton Crew.  

Skeleton Crew and Death of a Salesman run in rep until November 22 and November 26 respectively.  Call 401-351-4242 or visit their site at trinityrep.com for tickets.

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