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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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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