MUSCULAR THEATER THRIVES IN THE ROGUE'S "DEATH OF A SALESMAN"

photo by Tim Fuller

Cynthia Meier is Linda Loman, determined to make her husband Willy (Joseph McGrath) be as much man as he could manage in this Arthur Miller classic.

Just like the tea leaves in a versatile fortune teller's prescient cup, Arthur Miller's “Death of a Salesman” offers many emotional interpretations to explore on a variety of issues. For proof do not miss Matt Bowdren's fiercely directed production, running with a vengeance at The Rogue Theatre through Jan. 23, filled with myriad nuances of domestic complexity.

Upon it's world premier opening in February, 1949, on the cusp of America's Golden Decade of postwar prosperity, “Death of a Salesman” was analyzed as bursting with desire to shame the business world's corporate greed and a lack of sympathy for the home life of its employees.

Now after we have absorbed nearly 75 years of pop psychology's insight into new ways of analyzing family relationships, the traditional leadership role of fathers, the oblique roles that mothers played, the hard edge implied by the birth order of competitive siblings, etc., we can see how Miller's intuitive script includes a full catalog of household plots and motivations worthy of Shakespeare's hand.

To accomplish this depth of insight, Bowdren has pulled together a talented cast and drawn from each of them a tightly focused, award-worthy performance.

Joseph McGrath plays the roller-coaster role of 63-year-old Willy Loman, a charmer and natural sales drummer during the 1930s, but never able to take the next step into management as he grew older.

In today's parlance, we'd call Willy a gig worker. He took a sample case of products on the road, sold a bunch, came home and got paid according to how much he sold. His only responsibility was to sell more stuff.

McGrath is a brilliant Willy, reaching mercurial highs and suicidal lows, riffling back through his worn-to-threadbare emotions like a stack of faded cards suddenly short of aces.

Playing opposite Willy is Cynthia Meier as Linda Loman, in a sense the traditional housewife whose main job is to keep her husband going. Meier makes this role larger, more essential to the play's total impact, bearing an emotional weight equal to Willy, even though she has less stage time to make a greater impact.

Bowdren proves Meier is the vigorously beating heart of this production. The one who insists that honor must be paid, determined to keep patching and re-patching Willy's dreams, no matter how often he falls, no matter how bitterly their aching son Biff (Christopher Johnson) insults Willy's ability to make his own dreams come true.

Count the pumped-up Johnson among this cast of champions chipping in to create a sympathetic Biff whose gifts as a natural athlete and football star didn't count for much once high school was over. Like his father before him, Biff had no idea how to make the next move, where to go, what to do.

We watch, and feel Biff's pain, see how the sins of the father are passed on to the son, and ache at Biff's helplessness to do anything more.

Hunter Hnat picks up the pace as Biff's younger brother Happy, the lesser brother, overshadowed in his teen years. Hnat's performance of frustration gives more depth to the struggles of Willy, who was happy to ignore Happy in order to make a bigger hero out of Biff.

“Death of a Salesman” continues with performances Thursdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m.; matinees Saturdays-Sundays 2 p.m., to Jan. 23 in The Rogue Theatre, 300 E. University Blvd.

Tickets are $42 general admission, various discounts available. For details, theroguetheatre.org, 520-551-2053, Full COVID protocol is enforced, full vaccination ID and masks required in the theatre.


TIMELESS MELODIES SURROUND ELIZA'S TRANSFORMATION IN "MY FAIR LADY"

company photo

Eliza Doolittle (Shereen Ahmed) chats up the boys with her harsh cockney accent in an early scene from "My Fair Lady."

One of America's classic musical favorites, “My Fair Lady” by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, has returned to Tucson with a new set of magnificent clothes and large, flashy sets. We're talking the nationally touring Broadway in Tucson production playing through Jan. 9 in Centennial Hall at the University of Arizona.

Many of the songs have since become a part of our collective cultural memory after the show opened on Broadway on March 15, 1956, introducing such titles as “Wouldn't It Be Loverly,” “With A Little Bit of Luck,” “The Rain In Spain,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “On the Street Where You Live,” “Show Me,” “Get Me To The Church On Time” and “I've Grown Accustomed To Your Face.” Yet this luxurious traveling show still feels freshly minted and full of moxie.

Shereen Ahmed as Eliza Doolittle can do a cockney accent that'll make your eyes water, then sing in a soaring soprano voice of lilting clarity. Her transformation from being a soot-smeared flower-seller among the “guttersnipes” of London's lesser corners to becoming that elegant and gumption-packed young woman in command of her own fate will make you a believer, for sure.

Laird Mackintosh as the overbearing Professor Henry Higgins gives the role a completely different perspective from the usual Rex Harrison sort of arrogant tutor. Mackintosh, who has also played The Phantom on Broadway, has a softer style that makes Higgins seem more irritating than threatening.

This fits nicely against Ahmed's Eliza, whose personality comes across as more crafty than physically forceful. Always sizing up the odds against her in this world dominated by men, she holds her fire and bides her time until time is on her side.

My Fair Lady” is set in 1912, with a London economy much like our own when there was a wide difference between the very wealthy and the common folk. A lot of this disparity is conveyed in the costume designs of Catherine Zuber.

Her gowns as well as her wardrobes for gentlemen contain an elevated sense of grace. She reaches the pinnacle of fashion in that iconic scene of horse racing at Ascot Downs when the full company fancifully dressed fills the stage with clothing in 50 shades of gray – from top hats to flowering plumes and airy lace.

Equally imaginative are the revolving set designs by Michael Yeargan. We marvel at scene changes ranging from the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden to Alfred Doolittle's favorite bar to Professor Higgins' own library and study (seeming to have been carved whole from one massive tree trunk) to the Embassy ballroom of royals and other blue bloods, as well as the estimable Wimpole Street where Freddie (Sam Simahk) often walked to call on Eliza.

Broadway In Tucson truly is returning in style from the dark COVID period of no events. After opening with an excellent production of “Hamilton,” it was followed by this enhanced photo album experience from Yesteryear. Then the schedule will move on to “Wicked” waiting in the wings for its Tucson opening in a late January.

Tickets for “My Fair Lady” are $25-$140, available online or at the box office in Centennial Hall, 1020 E. University Blvd. Discounts are available for students, seniors and military. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Jan. 7-8, and 6:30 Sunday, Jan. 9. Matinees are 2 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday.

At Centennial Hall a full set of COVID protocols are being maintained, with all audience members required to remain masked through the full performance, which runs nearly three hours with one intermission. For the latest COVID updates, check broadwayintucson.com/shows/myfairlady/