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Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2004 02:30 pm

backstage pass 11-11-04

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Springfield Theatre Centre opens its production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman this week on the main stage of the Hoogland Center for the Arts. Don Russell, Loretta Hess, Mac Warren, and Rob Decroix, respectively, star in the roles of beleaguered Brooklyn salesman Willy Loman, his wife, and his two sons. The casting of this Salesman should be reason enough to take in this production.

Even though Salesman opened on Broadway in 1949, it still packs a punch with audiences and is constantly being produced around the world. It just closed at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, and a production is playing at London's National Theatre. Plans are under way for Brian Dennehy to play the lead role next spring in London's West End.

Death of a Salesman was just the second play of Miller's to reach Broadway, two years after All My Sons, but it is still regarded as his best work. He completed it in six weeks in 1948, when he was just 33, and it ran for 742 performances with Lee J. Cobb in the lead role.

A King Lear-sized part, Willy Loman has attracted top stage actors through the years. George C. Scott was Willy in a 1975 Broadway revival; Dustin Hoffman took on the role in 1984; Dennehy starred in the 50th-anniversary production, which ended up on Broadway after starting at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. Both the Hoffman and Dennehy productions were taped for television.

Death of a Salesman takes place during a 24-hour period -- Willy's last day of life -- with an epilogue that occurs a few days later. We see Willy reliving his memories and, then, how things actually happened. One of Miller's early titles for the play was The Inside of His Head.

Is Death of a Salesman America's greatest play? It is certainly one of the most revived. Miller, now in his eighties, is still writing, but few of his plays have received the same critical acclaim. That's certainly the case with his latest, Finishing the Picture, which premiered at the Goodman in September.

So why does this 55-year-old play still speak to audiences today? First, it's a family drama that most of us can identify with in some way. Most of us know a Willy Loman. And though it was written during a hopeful time in postwar America, it took a cynical, perhaps more truthful, look at the American dream.

"The theme of the play," says director Stephen Sykes, "is what happens when the American dream does not come true." It shouldn't be hard for today's audiences to identify with that theme.

Death of a Salesman plays at 8 p.m. Nov. 12, 13, 19, and 20 and at 2 p.m. Nov. 14 and 21. Call 217-523-2787 for tickets.

Among other area productions of note:

• The University of Illinois-Springfield's theater program concludes its run of View of the Dome, a political comedy by Theresa Rebeck, this week. Directed by Eric Thibodeaux-Thompson, the show plays Nov. 12-14 in the Studio Theatre, on the lower level of the Public Affairs Center (beneath the Sangamon Auditorium). For tickets, call 217-206-6160.

• Also this week, Pump Boys & Dinettes begins a two-week run at the Little Theatre on the Square in Sullivan. The professional cast features Springfield native Chris Blisset in this show that takes place on "Highway 57, between Frog Level and Smyrna, N.C." The show runs Nov. 11-14 and Nov. 18-21. For tickets, call 217-728-7375.

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