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A CurtainUp Review
Death of a Salesman
Arthur Miller believed that the nonlinear treatment of time in Death of a Salesman, in which past and present conflate, required a revolutionary, non-specific stage set. Dirk Durossette's stripped down, but basically naturalistic set for EgoPo works because the performance transcends it. Director Lane Savadove isn't too tied to details of location, yet he has a care for the effect of visual arrangements-that is, the effect of actors in the space.
Willy Loman's memories are as alive to him as if they were happening in the present and not in the past, and as a result, sound is primary in this production. It's used to signal Willy's anxiety and to allow the audience to feel and share his disquiet. Robert Carlton's sound design provides a visceral carrying out of the idea that we are experiencing the inside of Loman's head. That's why the space isn't really important. In fact, The Inside of His Head was Arthur Miller's first working title.
Savadove elicits the actors' "A Game": Willy Loman is precisely felt by Ed Swidey, who clearly has developed a life in the mind for his character through his own resources, not via something arrived at through cliches or other performances. Giants of the stage have worn Willy's shoes — among them Jason Robards, George C. Scott, Brian Dennehy, Dustin Hoffman, and Philip Seymour Hoffman — and our local actor Ed Swidey, turns out to have the heft and chops to fill those shoes, and has made the role his own. In an instant he turns from utter despair to a manic and false hope that can be seen in his eyes. Although young for the role, Swidey succeeds in taking on aging and unappreciated, disappointed and delusional. He assumes the tensions of a Willy unable to bear seeing himself -and his son- as failures. He is Willy at the end of his excuses. Salesmen have to have the goods to sell, and Willy is disintegrating because he was selling himself and he came up short.
Along with good direction, the fact that Miller's play doesn't favor proper formal speeches empowers the actors to go to character. Mary Lee Bednarek as Willy's wife Linda, tries bravely for spunk but can manage only ineffective vigilance and sadness. The play does not read as her flashback, however, as it is identified in the program. Anna Zaida Szapiro and Kaitlin Kemp as various women provide upbeat and or flirtatious notes.
Sean Lally taps some rich hidden source to portray Biff's bravado, his loser side, his pain, and ultimately his comprehension. The tragedy of Willy is somewhat offset by Biff achieving self-realization. Kevin Chick as Happy, the less favored son, subtly accesses his clown experience to good effect. The true chip off the old block, Happy will carry on his father's fraudulent values. Stephen Wright as Charley comes across for real as the truly decent guy. Charley and his son, Bernard, thoroughly realized by Derrick Millard, are foils to the Loman men. Bernard, taken for a fool by Willy's boys, achieves his objectives, not through fooling people but through hard work. And Russ Widdall, a vigorous showman, proves his versatility in his three roles, four when you count the added rabbi.
Staking a claim for a Jewish take, director Savadove has added a wrapper to the work, locating the story clearly within Jewish tradition. The show opens with Willy's family and few friends sitting shiva, and the production revisits the shiva near the end. The use of this framing device opens the show up to discussion of Miller's intentions regarding Jewishness:
David Mamet has stated unequivocally that Willie Loman "is, to any Jew, unmistakably a Jew." Tony Kushner claims that the play has a sense of "reaching for something universal, and some sense that the immigrant experience and the ethnic specificity would limit it." He has further noted that there's "a powerful attempt to make the language that is spoken in the play very clean and spare and I think in a way, classic." He claims that Miller is not so much presenting an ethnicity as "reaching for a deeper judgment."
Arthur Miller, who was Jewish and whose uncle, a salesman, took his own life, says of Willy Loman, "He was a Jewish character in my mind. But he is a lot of other things. … People draw universal application from the particular." Evidently he kept the work free of specificity to allow people from various backgrounds to recognize or identify with this sad, skewed commercial way of measuring one's worth as a person. So while Savadove's original and surprising add-on provided him with a controlling concept and a springboard for his directorial intentions, the characters' specific nationality doesn't emerge as an issue in the play itself, where there's not so much as an Oy vey. Judaism remains contained in the framing device, barely inflecting the message inside. This production brings out the surprising amount of humor in the tragic story, even as it delivers the power of Miller's revolutionary approach to character, structure, and message that changed American Theater. I left the Latvian Society Theater full of admiration for EgoPo's Death of a Salesman and look forward to the next two plays in their American Giants trilogy - the work of Miller's contemporary Tennessee Williams and of pioneer Eugene O'Neill, who began changing theater thirty years before Miller's Death of a Salesman and who lived for four years after its premiere.