Some 50 years ago, two Pulitzer Prizes went to two works that look at American values through different lenses. Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" won for Drama in 1949 and Herman Wouk's novel "The Caine Mutiny" won for fiction in 1952. Now Miller’s play and Wouk's stage adaptation of his own novel are both playing on Arlington stages.
The Arlington Players are performing "Death of a Salesman" at the Thomas Jefferson Theater on South Old Glebe Road through Feb. 16, while Dominion Stage is putting on Wouk' s "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial" at the Gunston Arts Center's Theater One on South Lang Street through Feb. 9.
The plays have more in common than the Pulitzer Prize. Both are fine productions offering absorbing evenings for audiences. Both feature impressively clean performances by leading actors and notable turns by members of supporting casts. Interestingly, both also adopt a no-nonsense, straightforward approach to the action, while indulging in a bit of unorthodoxy in their visual designs.
The two productions are the work of two of our better-known community theater directors. Both pursued a clarity of story-telling in their approaches.
Bruce Follmer directed the classic courtroom drama "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial" with a steady hand, keeping any of the supporting actors from indulging in excessive theatrics during their relatively brief moments in the limelight but giving his leads the latitude to build their characters.
The play covers the trial of the executive officer of a US Navy ship on charges of illegally relieving his Captain from command during a typhoon near the end of World War II.
Follmer's cast features Ron Field, who gives a disciplined performance as the Navy Captain. He appears twice, called once by the prosecution to set the case against the defendant and then called again by the defense in an effort to justify the removal. It is a part that many remember from Humphrey Bogart 's performance in the movie version, but Field makes it his own for this evening.
Michael Sherman also turns in a clear, uncluttered performance as the defense attorney sickened by the strategy he believes it is his duty to pursue. Hanz Dettmar plays the defendant, with a few too many grimaces and sighs.
Frank Pitts designed the set for the production, creating a very substantial bench from which the presiding officer, Bernie Engel, glowers and cajoles and generally keeps order. But he has cutouts of the other members of the court, and the witness stand is placed so as to keep the succession of witnesses a bit off kilter.
For "Death of a Salesman," director Chuck Whalen also designed the set, which strips things down to their essentials with just a few chairs and tables on a couple of low risers. Whalen also places doors and windows behind the rear scrim, and even moves the beds for the two bedrooms of Willy Loman’s house offstage.
Faced with the Thomas Jefferson Theatre's extremely wide stage, he spreads the setting out horizontally. Most productions have opted for a vertical design with bedrooms looming over the kitchen and the skyline of encroaching apartment houses as a backdrop. His approach works well on this stage.
His directorial approach works equally well: consistent blocking lets the audience quickly grasp when something is taking place in reality or in Loman's mind. This is important in "Death of a Salesman" because the story progresses through a number of flashbacks and Loman, played by Don Neal in a tightly controlled and heart-touching performance, suffers a series of hallucinations during his final decline. The audience is guided by this consistency, and by the marvelous clarity of Sally Kalmus as his wife, who recognizes reality even as she supports the husband she loves.
Both productions have small parts delivered with confidence and skill. In "Salesman" the very small part of a waiter is given a memorable portrayal by Travis J. Martz, who makes his area debut in the role.
In "Caine" many of the witnesses are impressive with just one four- or five-minute scene. Nano Gowland makes the role of the sole enlisted man to testify believable, although the author gives him a few too many quirks in the text.
Both productions are also notable for the fact that all the performers appeared comfortable on the stage, which is not always the case with community theater productions. This is a tribute to the companies' ability to attract quality actors in the competitive world of community theater in our area and to the work of the directors to make sure each performer has had a chance to understand his or her role and be comfortable in it.
With tickets to "Death of a Salesman" only $12 ($10 for juniors and seniors) and "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial" only $13 ($11 for students and seniors) February is a great month to catch a great show at one or both of Arlington' s quality community theaters.
"Death of a Salesman" plays the Thomas Jefferson Theatre, 125 South Old Glebe Road, on Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 PM and Sunday afternoons at 2:30 PM through February 16. Call (703) 549-1063. "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial" plays Theatre One at the Gunston Arts Center, 2700 South Lang Street this Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 PM. Call (703) 683-0502.