Lyric Stage's "Salesman": You Gotta Know the Territory

Paula Plum, Ken Baltin, Joseph Marrella & Kelby T. Akin
(photo: Mark S. Howard)
Much ink has been spilled about Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” over the past sixty-five years since its premiere in 1949. Universally regarded as one of the finest American plays ever written, (and by many as the greatest play of the twentieth century), it has never ceased to move each successive generation of theatergoers. Thus it was entirely fitting that Lyric Stage Company chose to include this Pulitzer Prize winning play as it celebrates its fortieth season. The distinguished playwright himself described it, in a subtitle, as “certain private conversations in two acts and a requiem”, but surely couldn’t have anticipated how relevant and resonant those conversations would continue to be, despite some slightly dated melodramatic conventions. Miller’s profoundly and painfully touching portrayal of the disintegration of the titular salesman, sixty-year-old Willy Loman (here played by Ken Baltin, gradually shrinking before our eyes), the relationship between husbands and wives as well as between fathers and sons, the precariously fragile nature of humankind, and the obsession with external appearances as opposed to what’s going on inside, all are themes he expertly dissects. Far ahead of his time, he also dealt with the ravages of mental illness, the unnamed scourge of clinical depression. The heavy sample cases Willy carries are not the only baggage he and his family bear.

His wife Linda (Paula Plum) and his two sons Biff, 34 (Kelby T. Akin) and Happy (Joseph Marrella) share in the failure Willy is experiencing, in small ways and large. Once the best of the best in the world of sales, he no longer makes enough to pay his insurance premiums. On a more universal scale, as the playwright once put it, he’s “ready to lay down his life to secure his sense of personal dignity; the underlying struggle is that of the individual attempting to regain his ‘rightful’ position in society”. There are no longer kings; the average man is, well, average. Though the play is set a half dozen decades ago, the tragic situation Willy and his family find themselves in could be the stuff of today’s headlines (even with such dated references as Filene’s Department Store). We feel the conflict in the most ordinary words: Willy describes Biff as “a lazy bum!”, only to hear him just moments later exclaim “There’s one thing about Biff-he’s not lazy”; he says he doesn’t like to see Linda mending stockings, which makes him “nervous” (or guilty), given that he has spent some of what little he has buying brand new stockings for someone else. At the close of the first act, Linda asks Willy about Biff: “What does he have against you?”. When we finally learn why Biff considers his father a “fake”, the devastating truth behind this particular family’s American dream is shattering.

In the right hands, as it surely is in this current production, it’s easy to see why this is so widely considered the greatest American tragedy. As masterfully directed here by Producing Artistic Director Spiro Veloudos, every member of the cast comes across as perfectly natural. Akin, as the sports hero with his own weight of failure (“I’m no good, can’t you see what I am?”) and Marrella as the “other” son desperate for crumbs of attention (twice crying out about his weight loss and intention to get married), each get chances to shine. The rest of this fine cast includes Bernard (Victor L. Shopov), The Woman (Eve Passeltiner), Uncle Ben (Will McGarrahan), Howard Wagner (Omar Robinson), Jenny (Margarita Martinez), Stanley (Jaime Carrillo), Miss Forsythe (Jordan Clark) and Letta (Amanda Spinella). Larry Coen, as the neighbor Charley, is especially memorable in the final scene. But as terrific as this cast is, it is Plum who is outstanding (one is tempted to say in a plum role she was born to play) and heartbreaking in her final words: “We’re free”.

All of the technical work is stellar, from the ingenious Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland (creating a multi-level playing area in a challengingly small playing area), very authentic-appearing Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley, crucial Lighting Design by Karen Perlow, and extremely effective Original Music by Dewey Dellay, setting just the right mood. In every aspect, this production is a winner.

Miller’s work is about so much: love, pain, courage. So often, very profound things are expressed in seemingly simple words, such as the neighbor Charley’s description of Willy “riding on a smile and a shoeshine”, and the loss felt “when they start not smiling back…that’s an earthquake”, or in Biff’s summation: “The man never knew who he was”. As Linda puts it, while Willy isn’t the greatest character that ever lived, he’s still a human being, with a terrible thing happening to him. Thus, in the most iconic quotation in modern theater, “attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.” As it must be to all of us, who, like Willy, have “got to dream, to make it happen; it comes with the territory”.

No comments:

Post a Comment