Review: Raven Theatre’s “Death of a Salesman”

 Salesman chippies: Devon Candura, Greg Caldwell, Alexis Atwill, Jason Huysman, Chuck Spencer

Raven Theatre presents:

Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller
directed by Michael Menendian
thru December 5th (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Perusing Raven Theatre’s season this year, you get the impression they are playing it pretty safe. The three plays in their season are 20th-Century American classics, and all have become community theater staples. They kick off with Arthur Miller’s Death of Saleman, follow that with Reginald Rose’s courtroom drama Twelve Angry Men, and serve up Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple for desert. Not a particularly daring season. With such well-known fare, Raven must face the challenge of proving these plays can still be invigorating even though the audience have probably seen them a couple of times already. If they can maintain the success of their opener, Miller’s 1949 masterpiece, they’ll prove that these familiar plays still have a lot of mileage left in them.

Right from the start of the show, I was reminded how different the American brand of realism is compared to its European counterpart. While dramatic geniuses like Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O’Neill were drawing stylistic inspiration from traditional realists like Chekhov and Ibsen, they also reveled in theatricality. Death of a Salesman, for instance, presents a very feasible and realistic story juxtaposed with scenes illustrating the delirium and fuzzy memories of a decaying mind. By intertwining the realistic and the psychological, Miller suggests the American dream doesn’t amount to much more than a mass delusion.

 

Salesman cards: Chuck Spencer, Jerry Bloom, Ron Quade Salesman dress: Susie Griffith, Chuck Spencer

Director Michael Menendian makes clear that he both respects Miller’s text but isn’t afraid to do some tinkering. While Kimberly Senior’s All My Sons refused to take risks, Menendian and his team embrace Miller’s stylized vision. Andrei Onegin’s moveable set creates all of the varied settings required, from a two-story house to a restaurant to an office. The machinations of Willy Loman’s mind are nicely emphasized by Amy Lee’s lights. Menendian helps both of them out by exploring the entire space with his staging. All sections of the audience get good views; sometimes characters even invade the house. By not falling into a proscenium trap, Menendian confirms that the 60-year-old piece is as engaging as any of this season’s world-premiers.

Menendian’s choices wouldn’t mean anything, though, if the casting wasn’t superb. The success of a production of Salesman more or less depends on the quality of the actor portraying Willy. Fortunately for all involved, Chuck Spencer is completely tuned to Miller’s text. He is simultaneously charming, vindictive, unstable, yet feeble. We visibly witness Willy’s mind breaking apart as his hopes collapse around him. Most of these hopes are for Biff, whose restlessness, passion, and self-loathing are captured by Jason Huysman. Greg Caldwell’s Happy is a slimy and callous “other son.” Caldwell makes it clear that Hap, although he doesn’t seem to be aware, is following in his father’s delusional footsteps towards self-destruction. The weakest performance of the bunch is Joann Montemurro’s matriarchal Linda. It takes a few scenes for her to key in with the rest of the ensemble. Once that happens, though, she can be as devastating as anyone else in this “common man’s tragedy.” The pace of the piece stays at a gallop and the cast skillfully pulls off the frenzied energy needed for Willy’s nostalgic hallucinations. The only other issue of note is that the actors become too physical with each other too fast. This dissipates the enormous tension of Miller’s words; the impassioned grappling and grabbing that come into almost every scene would have a better effect if saved up for a few hyper-intense moments.

In writing Salesman, Miller wanted to toss out the Aristotelian notion that tragedy could only involve kings and royalty (Oedipus, Hamlet, Lear). He shows us through Willy Loman that even the middle-class can have tragic flaws. Instead of a vast kingdom, however, it is single household that is torn asunder. And just like we can be moved by Euripides and Shakespeare today, Raven’s crushing production verifies that Miller’s opus is still terrifyingly resonant.

 

Rating: «««½

 

Salesman punch: Kevin Hope, Jason Huysman, Chuck Spencer, Greg Caldwell

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Theater Thursday: “Death of a Salesman” at Raven Theatre

Thursday, October 15

Death of a Salesman

by Arthur Miller

at the Raven Theatre

6157 N. Clark St., Chicago

raven-deathThis week’s Theater Thursday event will offer free drinks and light appetizers before the show as well as a talk-back with the actors and crew following the production.Willy Loman, Miller’s quintessential Everyman, is a traveling salesman who spends his entire life chasing a dream driven by his misguided mantra, "Be liked and you will never want". After years of pouring all his energy and resources into his older son Biff, whom he is convinced will rise to greatness with his Adonis-like features and athletic prowess, Willy is faced with the crushing realization of the utter failure of his pursuit for a better life.  One late spring night Willy returns to his Brooklyn home from an aborted sales trip to New England, and over the course of the next 24 hours Arthur Miller takes us on a journey through the past and present of a man whose life is reeling beyond his control.
Event begins at 7:30 p.m.
Show begins at 8 p.m.

TICKETS ONLY: $25
For reservations call 773.338.2177 and mention "Theater Thursdays."