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."

Chicago shows currently Jeff-Recommended

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Equity Wing:
Learn more about the Equity Wing

All My Sons
TimeLine Theatre Company
» our review here

Cabaret
Drury Lane Oakbrook Theatre
» our review here

High Fidelity
Route 66 Theatre Company

Million Dollar Quartet
Apollo Theater Chicago
» our review here

Mistakes Were Made
A Red Orchid Theatre

Studs Terkel’s Not Working
The Second City e.t.c.

The Fantasticks
Porchlight Music Theatre Chicago

The History Boys
TimeLine Theatre Company

The Light in the Piazza
Marriott Theatre

 

Non-Equity Wing:
Learn more about the Non-Equity Wing

Graceland
Profiles Theatre
» our review here

POSEIDON! An Upside Down Musical
Hell in a Handbag Productions

The Night Season
Premiere Theatre and Perf. i/a/w/ Vitalist Theatre

The Taming of the Shrew
Theo Ubique Theatre Company i/a/w Michael James
» our review here

Under Milk Wood
Caffeine Theatre
» our review here

Review: Timeline Theatre’s “All My Sons”

Timeline tackles Miller with outstanding results.

All_My_Sons2

Timeline Theatre presents:

All My Sons
by Arthur Miller
directed by Kimberly Senior
Greenhouse Theatre Center 
Running thru October 4th (buy tickets)

 Reviewed by Oliver Sava

All_My_Sons5 Timeline’s All My Sons is a beautiful, haunting piece of theater. Arthur Miller‘s masterpiece is the story of the Keller family, rocked after the disappearance of son Larry during World War II and patriarch Joe’s (Roger Mueller) trial for shipping defective airplane parts that led to the death of 20 pilots. When Larry’s brother Chris (Erik Hellman) invites Ann (Cora Vander Broek), Larry’s sweetheart, to the Keller house to propose to her, tensions rise as mother Kate (Janet Ulrich Brooks) interprets the gesture as a confirmation of Larry’s death. Meanwhile, Ann’s brother George (P.J. Powers) arrives with shocking revelations from the man that went to jail for Joe Keller, their father.

Exquisitely directed by Kimberly Senior, the cast captures the sense of family that is essential to a successful production by finding a comfort with each other that allows the language to flow naturally. The rhythm of Senior’s production is like a heartbeat: when the stakes are high the show moves at a rapid pace, taking the audience on an emotional sprint as the characters watch their world collapse, but there are also quiet moments when the actors can slow down and absorb the changing circumstances around them. Silence is used remarkably well, such as when Chris struggles to find the words to express his love for Ann (or does he know the words and is afraid to say them?), and when these pauses are broken, intense reality rushes in to fill the gap. The perfect balance of these moments is what ultimately makes the production so captivating, mimicking the diversity of the everyday.

All_My_Sons3Janet Ulrich Brooks shows why she’s been nominated for two Jeff Awards this year with her portrayal of the delusionally optimistic Kate, perfectly capturing the pain of a mother’s loss underneath a facade of hopefulness. From the moment she takes the stage, Brooks exudes a welcoming presence that pulls the audience firmly into Miller’s world, and it is no surprise when she is able to calm the infuriated George and make him feel like a child in her home again. Brooks seems to bring out the best in her costars, and the scenes that she shares with Mueller are bristling with the chemistry of a couple that has been married for decades.
In the earlier scenes of the play Mueller and Hellman establish the father/son dynamic that lies at the heart of All My Sons, a relationship that revolves around their understanding of war and what it means regarding their missing family member. Hellman plays Chris with a youthful exuberance, but underneath his calm exterior is a man that is haunted by the death he has seen, and caused, in his short life. Conversely, Joe lives in a semi-denial regarding the amount of responsibility he had with the defective airplane parts, and when these two characters’ vastly different emotional states come out in full force the results are explosive.

All_My_Sons6Initially, Cora Vander Broek‘s Ann does not seem to fit in with the rhythm that the company has created. She speaks with a calm confidence that is a stark contrast to the other women in the play, but when she consoles Chris as he confesses his survivor’s guilt, it becomes apparent why Ann is different: she has control. Surrounded by women that have chosen to be subservient to the men in their lives, Anne refuses to compromise for what she wants, and the strength of her convictions ultimately leads to the play’s tragic conclusion. The only person that is able to put a dent in Ann’s steely demeanor is her brother, and Powers plays George with just the right mix of compassion for his sister and disdain for the Kellers so as to never make him seem malicious.

Timeline can proudly add another success to their already hefty list with All My Sons. From the fabulous cast, including the heretofore unmentioned neighbors that establish the world around the Keller home, to the revelatory direction, Miller’s classic is done the justice it deserves. Just ask all the audience members reaching for their tissues at the end of the show.

Rating: ««««

 

View Arthur Miller's -All My Sons- at Timeline Theatre

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Show openings and closings this week

chicago

show openings

All My Sons TimeLine Theatre

The Darkest Pit Prop Thtr

Texas Sheen Chemically Imbalanced Theater

The Thin Man City Lit Theater

Under Milk Wood Caffeine Theatre

 

chicagoatnight

show closings

Aladdin Chicago Shakespeare Theatre

The Arabian Nights Lookingglass Theatre (our review)

Boys Life Hangar 9 Theatre

Charlotte’s Web Theatre-Hikes

Deal, New Deal Greenhouse Theater Center

Draft Gorilla Tango Theatre

Dual Duel ComedySportz

Frankenmatt The Second City etc

Idiot Tango Annoyance Theatre

Improv Children of the Corn 2 Cornservatory

Improv Open Mic ComedySportz

Lies & Liars Theatre Seven of Chicago (our review)

Misanthrope, or the Impossible Lovers Vintage Theater Collective

My Fair Lady Light Opera Works (our review)

The People in Your Neighborhood ComedySportz

Six Degrees of Separation Eclipse Theatre (our review)

Yellow Gorilla Tango Theatre

Theater Thursday: TimeLine Theatre’s “All My Sons”

Thursday, August 27

All My Sons by Arthur Miller
TimeLine Theatre at the Greenhouse Theater Center
2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago

allmysonsJoin TimeLine before the show at Kendall’s, 2263 N. Lincoln Ave., and enjoy an all-American buffet along with drinks from the bar while you mingle with members of the TimeLine Company and artistic team. Then stay for the 1947 Tony Award winner for Best Play, All My Sons, performed right next door! Arthur Miller’s classic drama, set in the aftermath of World War II, is about a middle-class American family threatened by an explosive secret from the father’s past. Variety raved that All My Sons is a commanding illustration of the power of theater and a searing drama of morality and conscience.
Event begins at 6:30 p.m.

Show begins at 8 p.m.
TICKETS ONLY $25 
For reservations call 773-404-7336 and mention "Theater Thursdays."

Review: Creative Arts Foundation’s “Pill Hill”

Testing the Bonds of Brotherhood in Sam Kelley’s  “Pill Hill”

 "Pill Hill", by Sam Kelley, now playing at eta Creative Arts Foundation

The award winning eta Creative Arts Foundation wraps up its 38th season with a sterling production of Sam Kelley’s Pill Hill, a play that explores the journeys of 6 Chicago steel mill workers trying to realize economic and social success. Director Aaron Todd Douglas has honed his actors into a taut and dynamic ensemble. His direction shines at its best when it contrasts the vital camaraderie that unites these African American men with the unspoken truths, rationalizations, and false aspirations that throw each character into isolation.

Pill Hill is the black upper-class neighborhood on Chicago’s south side where these men aspire to live one day as a sign that they have “made it.” As some take their first tentative steps away from the steel mill, others get left behind—Charlie, the senior member of the group, who has worked there since migrating to Chicago from the South and Joe, who cannot bear to turn away from a sure paycheck, even though the mill inexorably grinds him down. Kelley’s play examines the toll that success takes on friendship, while acknowledging that the price of doing nothing is certainly just as high.

There is much to be said about Kelley’s keen eye on friendships between the men of Pill Hill. Most of that dynamic plays out between Joe (Kelvin Roston, Jr.) and Eddie (Anthony Peeples), in the crucible of their desire for a better life. Much as they both share their dreams of getting out of the mill and onto the Hill, more goes unsaid between them about the limits of their friendship when the stagnation of one strains against the overwhelming success of the other.

Indeed, the whole cast, under Douglas’s watchful direction, construct nuanced relationships between their characters, where what is not said matters as much as what is. Therefore, much is made about Joe’s need to move on from mill work, but silence surrounds his encroaching alcoholism; Scott (Cecil Burroughs) gets to revel in his glory days as a prospective football player, but no one confronts him about his descent into drug sales once his potential truly dries up; the guys remark frequently on Tony’s (Corey Spruill) natural abilities as a salesman, but none question his growing lack of a moral center.

Attention, as well as praise, must be paid to the most riveting monologue of the production, delivered by David Adams, as Charlie. It is critical to the play. It grounds it in the recognition that success can never be as simple to African Americans as it is for whites. Success for African Americans bears the awful burden of reflecting full-fledged personhood and first-class citizenship. Tragically, material success may also dangerously expose a black man as being “too uppity.” Charlie relates the time that Southern police officers pulled him over for the crime of driving his new Cadillac around his old hometown. After they have terrorized and humiliated him in front of his family, Charlie drives back to Chicago and puts the Cadillac up on blocks, not to be driven again, until a new sheriff has taken over, years later. Obviously, having more than white bigots think you deserve can get you into as much trouble as having nothing.

While having it all and having nothing contend most dramatically between Joe and Eddie, it’s the internal struggle between the two that wreaks the most havoc with Eddie’s soul. Eddie is the greatest achiever of the group, breaking the glass ceiling as the first black lawyer of a prestigious Chicago law firm. He becomes the group’s living symbol of promise and hope. But one almost wishes Eddie could be a little less successful, but a little more content, as is dear, henpecked Al (Kevin Hope). Peeple’s Eddie is ready to crack under the burden of it all—the success, the compromise that success demands of him, and especially, the childlike adulation of Joe, who is already so broken, no attempt can be made to hide it. Something has got to give. The showdown between Joe and Eddie is searing and unforgettable.

It is my hope that theatergoers who are familiar with the north side will head south to see this magnificent production. Douglas and cast strike the right balance between playfulness and tension, humor and anger, yearning, helplessness, and hope. While some dialogue may be stilted, Sam Kelley’s work truly ranks with other dramas that critique the American Dream, like Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman or David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. Whatever its limits, this play examines something that the previous two works do not. It explores the modern day tests that are put to an African American brotherhood that is, all at once, flawed, endangered, compassionate, and powerful.

Rating:  ««««

Pill Hill runs through August 9th, at the eta Creative Arts Foundation, located at 7558 S Chicago Avenue.  For more info and tickets, call (773) 752-3955.

Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8:00 P.M.
Sunday at 3:00 P.M. & 7:00 P.M.

 

For more info regarding eta Creative Arts, click on “Read more”

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