Saturday, February 24, 2007

Death of a Salesman (Actors' Summit)

ACTORS’ SUMMIT does a good job of selling a Miller classic

Cleveland has become an Arthur Miller kind of town! Running concurrently are the master playwright’s THE PRICE (Ensemble Theatre) and THE DEATH OF A SALESMAN (Actors’ Summit). And, to the pleasure of local theatre-goers, both productions are excellent!

Arthur Miller, who died in 2005 at the age of 89, is considered to be one of America’s greatest modern playwrights. He authored many highly regarded works including ‘THE CRUCIBLE,’ ‘A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE’ and ‘ALL MY SONS.’

Many consider his greatest work to be ‘DEATH OF A SALESMAN,’ which premiered on Broadway on February 10, 1949, starring Lee J. Cobb. The play won a Tony Award, a New York Drama Critics' Award and a Pulitzer Prize. It was the first play ever to win all three of those awards.

Miller, who continued in his writing to probe, “Is this the best way to live,” features that theme in Salesman, which by most counts is the most studied American play in high schools and colleges.

The plot centers on Willy Loman, a salesman who has spent his whole life “way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine,” proud of his ability to sell anything to anyone and to provide for his family. In reality, this is a dream of the reality...he is not successful, nor well liked, nor providing for his family. As the play unfolds, he loses his job, the respect of his sons, and finally, his hope. He finds himself needing to face reality, but unable to do so.

Miller uses flashbacks to create a stream of conscious to illustrate Willy’s lack of reality. He is a modern day tragic hero, whose flaws lead to his destruction. He dies, as he has lived, by creating a false illusion. Is this the best way to live?

The play takes place in a small house in Brooklyn. Originally in the country, the home in the play is now surrounded by high-rise buildings. The house really exists. The Miller family lived there. Ironically, it is around the corner from my aunt and uncle’s apartment and, when I visited them, I would walk over to see the residence, and realized that it, much like Willy, was overwhelmed and lost by the reality of the world which surrounds it.

Actors’ Summit’s production, under the direction of Alex Cikra is quite good. Though a little slow in places, the play’s intent is clear.

A. Neil Thackaberry, coming off an amazing performance in Actors’ Summit’s ‘QED,’ gives Willy the right physical and emotional dimensions. Here is a stoop-shouldered hunk of a man who walks as if defeated, weighted down by not only his salesman’s valises, but by his self-created delusions. Interestingly, Thackaberry’s occasional stumbling over lines adds to the chaos in the character’s mind.

Paula Duesing does well as Linda, Willy’s brow-beaten enabler wife. One of her two major speeches is outstanding. Known as the “respect must be paid” soliloquy, in which she summarizes Willy as an undistinguished man whose name will never appear in a newspaper, Duesing is emotionally right on target. Unfortunately, the final speech, the requiem, when Linda states that she is unable to cry and questions why, now that “We’re free and clear” Willy has killed himself, lacks the emotional gut-shaking reality that is needed to close the curtain on Willy’s delusions.

This production, however, belongs to Nick Koesters as Biff, the only Loman capable of finally realizing that he is not the superstar that Willy has dreamt up. Koesters is outstanding. In the scene in which he finds out the truth about his philandering father, his body sags, his eyes well, his lips tremble, the life goes out of his eyes as his world crashes down. Bravo!

John Galbraith is fine as the clueless Hap, the other son, who is well on his way to becoming another Willy.

Cikra’s decision to multi-cast Marc Moritz as five different people is questionable. Though Moritz is excellent, several scenes lose their focus because Moritz is forced to literally play two people at once.

The set does more to distract than enhance the production. Not using see-through walls, which Miller meticulously describes in the play’s notes, distracts from our ability to separate Willy’s realities from his illusions.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘DEATH OF A SALESMAN’ is a brilliant play. Actors’ Summit generally does a fine job of showcasing this important work.