These Teen Actors Bring New Energy to Tragedy of Death of a Salesman

Everyone at Plano’s Fun House Theatre and Film is far too young to be doing Arthur Miller’s epic tragedy Death of a Salesman. And yet they succeed in creating one of the best acted, most emotionally lucid productions of this play to hit a local stage in years.

Director Susan Sargeant, whose WingSpan Theatre Company tackles classics by Miller and Albee, has assembled a solid cast of one adult, Fun House co-founder and resident director Jeff Swearingen, and 11 teens, including acting-beyond-their years wunderkinds Kennedy Waterman, 14, and Chris Rodenbaugh, 18. Swearingen, in his 30s, is 30 years too young to play Willy Loman, the road-weary Brooklyn hosiery salesman. Waterman is a half-century too young to play wife Linda. But somehow it works. Even with the drawn-on wrinkles on Swearingen’s forehead. Even with the gray-haired wig and baggy print dress on Waterman. Laney Neumann, 18, plays The Woman (Willy’s paramour), but Sargeant avoids the ick factor by dressing her in a negligee that’s sexy but not inappropriate, and there’s no physical contact (attention must be paid to these things with actors under 21).

As for the rest of the ensemble, Doak Campbell Rapp, Andy Stratton, brothers Josh and Jeremy LeBlanc, Brian Wright, Zoe Grafrath and Tess Cutillo aren’t out of high school, but if you didn’t know that, you wouldn’t question why they’ve been cast as Salesman’s businessmen, B-girls and other much-older parts. You can tell they understand every line of this difficult play and what their characters do in it.

This isn’t stunt casting. Fun House isn’t your typical youth theater. Over the past five years, Swearingen and his co-founder and producer Bren Rapp have put on impressive age-blind productions of tough plays by Stoppard and Albee. They’ve done a full-out Hamlet (starring Rodenbaugh) and a Romeo and Juliet in which young actors were ideal as Shakespeare’s teenage title characters. Swearingen expects his actors, as young as 7 and no older than 18, to take the craft seriously. And boy, do they. Several of Fun House’s regulars recently were cast in big shows at Uptown Players and Shakespeare Dallas. (The kids pay to attend the Fun House classes, which goes toward funding the productions.)

In Salesman, the surprise is that the acting is as tight and confident as in any grown-up company. The budget is tight, too, so Sargeant has wisely kept the staging simple, furnishing the small black box stage with just one table, three chairs and a couple of rollaway cots. (Scenery design is by Clare Floyd DeVries. Lighting by Suzanne Lavender. Sound by Lowell Sargeant. All are excellent.)

The actors move and speak naturally, no showy gestures, no forced emoting. Swearingen employs a hint of nasally Brooklynese, which makes him sound like Dustin Hoffman’s Willy Loman. He seems to shrink into his suit jacket the way Hoffman did, too, showing the character’s age by walking and gesturing like a man fighting aches in his knees and feet. He’s better in the flashbacks as the younger Willy, throwing playful punches at his sons and bouncing on his heels as he boasts of his likability among fellow traveling salesmen.

A problem with this play is how to shift between its moments of stark reality and its glimpses into Willy’s hallucinations. (Miller’s original title was Inside of His Head.) Salesman’s scenes jump wildly from present to past and back again with little to indicate which is which except slight differences in lighting, costumes and how the actors put it across.

Sargeant has tamed the transitions by keeping them fast and fluid. Here’s where the Fun House cast really clicks. Willy’s sons, Biff and Happy, both in their 30s, are usually played by 30-ish actors who then have to whip around and pretend to be teenagers. What a difference it makes to have Biff (Rodenbaugh) and Happy (a swaggering Tex Patrello) played by high school-age boys who have to do much less to be believed as older men than older actors have to do to act like teens. Their brotherly chemistry heightens the tension in older Biff and Happy’s late-night bedroom chat about their troubled father, a scene too many productions bungle.

There’s another scene in this great old drama that is rarely done with as much raw emotion as Swearingen and Rodenbaugh bring: The moment of truth between Willy and Biff. The elder son, a gifted athlete who left home after blowing a shot at a college football scholarship, has found fulfillment as a simple laborer on a Texas farm. Tearfully, Biff begs his father to snap out of his grandiose dreams of wealth. “Pop! I’m a dime a dozen and so are you,” says Biff. In the Fun House production, watch how Rodenbaugh’s Biff drops to his knees and sobs into his father’s shoulder like a little boy. Swearingen has Willy react as if he doesn’t get what his son is saying; he can’t bring himself to return the embrace. Devastating.

Waterman is equally effective delivering another of Arthur Miller’s great speeches in this play. Wife Linda tells her sons that “attention must be paid” to Willy after all he has sacrificed for them. Waterman underplays the lines, which makes us lean in to hear them. Then at the end of the play, Linda must kneel alone onstage after Willy’s funeral to deliver the script’s last words. Here Waterman is simply luminous, as Linda tells the empty air “I can’t cry.” It takes a real actor, usually one with about 20 years’ training and experience, to get just to the edge of tears and hold back. If Waterman can do this role this well at 14, imagine what she will do as an actor in her 20s, 30s and beyond.
Death of a Salesman merges past and present in a story of men who dream of success and never achieve it. In throwing themselves into this extraordinary play, the Fun House kids, young as they are, offer a look into the future of some promising acting careers.

Death of a Salesman
continues through November 21 at Fun House Theatre and Film, Black Box Theatre at Plano Children’s Theatre, 1301 Custer Road. Tickets $5-$8 at the door.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner