Every mature actor worth his stripes covets the role of Willy Loman, easily the most indelible character of American theatre. So it is essential to the presentation of this oft-revisited classic that it stars an actor capable of reaching the depths of that sad salesman's existential angst.
Richard Fancy exceeds all hopes in the embodiment of this heartbreaking, and heartbroken, man. Seething with rage and delusion, Fancy's portrayal of Loman is immediately enrapturing. It is perhaps apt that Willy should be the sun around whom all other players revolve; but sadly, much of the rest of the cast seems to have fallen out of orbit. Although Sharron Shayne is effective as long-suffering Linda Loman, and her adoration for Willy is palpable, she does not match the level of distress that emanates from her partner. Most disappointing are Greg Vignolle and David Clayberg as Willy's sons Biff and Happy, who perform with an often-physically-awkward veneer of emotions. The two actors hit a low as the play travels back in time; they reduce their characters to nose-rubbing and mugging more suitable for 4-year-olds than for teenagers. This is perhaps the fault of Elina de Santos' mostly fluid direction, although Michael Balsley avoids such histrionics to give a gripping performance as both young and old Bernard. One wishes Biff and Happy would share in that immediacy; although it's arguable that Willy's sons are not supposed to connect with him, it is more a question of faulty theatrics than of a portrayal of any script-based alienation. Also causing disconnect is the set by Haibo Yu. The backdrop is a jaunty collage of 1950s advertisements that serves only to distance the audience, unnecessarily placing the production in a time capsule despite its enduring themes.
Adversity notwithstanding, this production is a worthwhile retelling of Arthur Miller's chestnut, whether you have never seen the show or are a connoisseur of performance. Googy Gress, Gregory Ross, and Nicole Hawkyard also make notable turns, but it is Fancy's masterful emulation of decay that gives this play the weight it deserves.
Presented by and at Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. Jun. 16-Jul. 23. (310) 822-8392. www.pacificresidenttheatre.com.