BWW Review: Lyric Stage's SALESMAN Merits Attention
Death of a Salesman
Written by Arthur Miller, Directed by Spiro Veloudos; Scenic Design, Janie E. Howland; Costume Design, Gail Astrid Buckley; Lighting Design, Karen Perlow; Original Compositions, Dewey Dellay; Production Stage Manager, Nerys Powell; Assistant Stage Manager, Greg Nash; Assistant Scenic Design, Anat Mano
CAST: Kelby T. Akin, Ken Baltin, Jaime Carrillo, Jordan Clark, Larry Coen, Joseph Marrella, Margarita Martinez, Will McGarrahan, Eve Passeltiner, Paula Plum, Omar Robinson, Victor L. Shopov, Amanda Spinella
Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is sixty-five years old, but unlikely to face the same fate as its tragic protagonist Willy Loman, the aging, failing salesman losing sight of the American Dream. First performed in 1949, the venerable play has had six Broadway productions and is Producing Artistic Director Spiro Veloudos's choice as the Lyric Stage Company's annual American classic. While the weightiness of it may feel like piling on to the communal seasonal affective disorder of this relentless winter, the virtues of Miller's Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning drama make it both a compelling and cathartic theatrical experience.
Staged on Janie E. Howland's marvelously evocative set - allowing the audience to view the mid-20th century kitchen, the marital bedroom, and the boys' shared upstairs quarters all at once - with Gail Astrid Buckley's detailed, period-appropriate costume design, Veloudos guides us across the first bridge to the era of the play. Although most of Miller's themes resonate in 2014, creating an atmosphere that looks and feels like the 1940s enriches our experience by swaddling us in the oppressive burdens, both real and imagined, that Willy bears. As a man "who makes his living riding on a smile and a shoeshine," his passé style is no longer the coin of the realm, but he refuses to relinquish his dreams for himself and his prodigal sons.
The first image of Willy Loman (Ken Baltin) is a still-life; he is backlit, casting a long shadow of a slumped figure wearing an overcoat and fedora, laden with two large sample cases that seem like innate appendages. Exhausted, he stumbles into the kitchen waking his wife Linda (Paula Plum), who immediately shifts into solicitousness, alternately cooing and cheering him on. Willy has aborted a road trip to New England and Linda encourages him to convince his boss Howard (Omar Robinson) to let him stay in New York. On the upstairs stage, their sons Biff (Kelby T. Akin), home from his wanderings for a visit, and younger brother Happy (Joseph Marrella) talk about their father, reminisce about their youth, and discuss their dreams. Soon, Willy has the first of many flashback scenes in which he relives moments with the boys, his wife, his deceased brother Ben (Will McGarrahan), and of his life on the road.
The non-linear format of the play enhances its dramatic impact. Miller's genius is evident in the blending of the back stories with the present, gradually filling in the blanks of his characters' motivations by showing events that happened in the past. Those scenes take place downstage and, with the exception of Baltin, the actors change clothes (Plum also switches to a darker wig sans gray hair) and add a spring to their step to go back in time. To reflect his younger self, Baltin's actions are livelier, his posture becomes more erect, and he adopts an expression that is less hangdog. By appearing only in Willy's mind, Ben is larger than life and McGarrahan plays him with a bold, upright confidence that offers a sharp contrast between the brothers.
Although Death of a Salesman is Willy's saga, he would be far less interesting without the conflict with Biff and the dual role that Linda plays in his life. Akin captures the angst and ambivalence of the son who knows he cannot live up to his father's lofty goals for him, and his gradual build-up to the final discourse between the two results in a very emotional and powerful scene. Having seen the play before without taking much notice of Linda, Plum's interpretation is all the more potent as she walks the fine line between wife and maternal caretaker for her husband. Without fanfare, she portrays Linda's well of strength, and projects her awareness of what is about to happen to Willy with a devastating expression on her face as she slowly backs out of the room.
Baltin navigates the difficult terrain and many moods of his character seamlessly, ranging from tired and frustrated to hopeful and exhilarated, although his articulation tends to be unclear in his more excitable moments. He has realistic chemistry with all of the members of the ensemble and I enjoyed his love-hate camaraderie with Larry Coen (Charley) who beautifully underplays his role here. Victor Shopov is spot on as Charley's geeky son Bernard, and it is easy to understand Willy's discomfort when he meets with Robinson's unforgiving Howard. Like his character who competes for attention with his more impressive brother, Marrella is overshadowed by Akin. His best scenes are the ones in which Happy is self-aggrandizing and playing the ladies man, but he needs to delve deeper to find the core of his insecurity.
Rounding out the design team are Lighting Designer Karen Perlow and Dewey Dellay, whose brilliant original score significantly adds to the emotional impact of the production. Veloudos orchestrates with equal parts intelligence and sensitivity to connect today's audience with the power of this mature classic. It isn't easy to watch a tragedy unfold, but it is human nature to get caught up in it. At the very least, there is much to learn from the experiences of this one family, if we only pay attention. As Miller writes, "Attention must be paid."
Photo credit: Mark S. Howard (Joseph Marrella, Kelby T. Akin, Paula Plum, Ken Baltin)