ARTS

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October 13, 2009

Trapped in commercial culture, Raven's tragic Salesman thrives

It is perhaps easy in our entitled and skeptical age to dismiss Willy Loman, the central figure of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, as a delusional fool pursuing misguided dreams. Raven Theatre’s 60th Anniversary production of Salesman, though, renders it practically impossible to discount the vulnerable side of any character in the play. Tour de force performances from each of the main characters—Willy, Biff, Hap, and Linda—bring the classic heartrending family drama to new emotional heights that even the most cynical millennial can feel.

Miller’s essential play tells the story of Willy Loman, the quintessential Everyman, who has spent his life driven by an endless, futile quest to be “well-liked.” After years of pouring all his energy and hope into his older son Biff, whom he is convinced will rise to greatness with his Adonis-like physique and athletic prowess, Willy is faced with the crushing realization that all his dreams have been little better than illusions.

As the happy façade of their family life slowly falls apart, the Lomans reveal their darker facets, and the Raven Theatre's cast does an impressive job fleshing out these characters. Willy's longing for a better future in which he could finally reap some reward for his efforts is eminently evident in Chuck Spencer's sensitive performance. Spencer builds a strong sense of pathos, credibly depicting Willy's helpless confusion as he discovers that his dearest values have been trampled down by corporate America. JoAnn Montemurro as Linda Loman solidly exemplifies the "infinite patience" that Miller calls for in his script, and ends the play convincingly with a traumatic outburst of emotion that finally betrays her inner torment from watching Willy march slowly but surely to his death.

Jason Huysman puts in a strong performance as Biff, the returning prodigal son. Oscillating between the ethos of an all-American quarterback and that of a perpetually lost middle-aged man, Huysman’s acting is central to the drama. Biff’s existential crisis is a frequent source of conflict throughout the play, and each verbal battle is enacted with seething passion, convincingly portraying the family’s emotional desperation.

The set is stunning both in its visual quality and in its practical design. When Willy returns home from a failed business trip at the beginning of the play and tugs at the door of a nondescript-looking suburban house front, the set opens down the middle like a dollhouse to reveal a cozy little abode with a kitchen, dining area, and two bedrooms. Throughout the rest of the play, quick pulls and pushes on the two fold-out wings of the stage create subtle shifts in setting as the scenes travel from the Loman home to downtown New York to the Loman boys’ favorite restaurant.

The impressive attention to detail in the set design makes the production even more engaging for those audience members who are watching carefully. In Act 1, the kitchen countertop slowly collects a clutter of props, reflecting the slow unraveling of Willy’s sanity and of the family’s dreams. The incorporation of other audio-visual elements throughout the production adds to the atmosphere, most notably a hazy, off-focus video clip that nicely sets the scene for Willy’s confused and tired state of mind. Background music is used in parts of the play, though there were points (thankfully few) where perhaps the melody threatened to add too much and distract from the emotional intensity of the actors.

All in all, the Raven’s production is a powerful rendition of this seminal play, familiar to most former students of high school English. But reading a play is fundamentally different from watching one, and this production exemplifies this maxim, providing the audience with a memorable performance that constantly tugs at the heartstrings.