The Loman family in EgoPo Classic Theater’s DEATH OF A SALESMAN: Ed Swidey (Willy), Mary Lee Bednarek (Linda), Sean Lally (Biff), and Kevin Chick (Happy). Photo by David Cimetta
Philip Roth was once asked how you write a great Jewish novel. You write a great novel, he responded, then make the characters Jewish. Such seems to be the thinking behind EgoPo Classic Theater‘s impassioned production of DEATH OF A SALESMAN.
Director Lane Savadove has recast the tragic Loman clan of Arthur Miller’s classic as a Jewish family. The transposition makes sense. Although the Lomans are of unspecified background, Miller himself was Jewish. The theme of EgoPo’s 2014/15 season is “American Giants”. Considered alongside a recent all-black staging of the play in Philadelphia, this positioning demonstrates how encompassing is Miller’s giant of American theater. The yearnings and struggles in DEATH OF A SALESMAN align well with the Jewish experience in America, as with the African American experience.
Kevin Chick (Happy), Sean Lally (Biff), and Ed Swidey (Willy) in DEATH OF A SALESMAN. Photo by David Cimetta.
So this production begins with title character Willy Loman’s shiva (a Jewish wake, sort of), and plays as a series of flashbacks leading to his funeral, with rites given by a rabbi. Within this frame, Savadove barely explores his decision to make the Lomans Jewish, with only some accent shifts to mark Mary Lee Bednarek as the stereotypical Jewish mother. Instead, his focus is on the spiraling psychological breakdown that precipitates Willy’s downfall.
Ed Swidey is probably two decades younger than most Willys, but Savadove’s decision to work with a cast of young actors proves inspired. Miller plays with time in his script, switching decades seemlessly, and Swidey brings an energy and passion to the role which could carry any production. Here, Swidey’s presence is matched by Sean Lally as the wayward son Biff. In Lally’s hands, Biff’s arc from cocky high school athlete to tortured drifter to a clear-sighted son and brother provides a parallel narrative thrust.
Russ Widdall (right) provides great support in EgoPo’s DEATH OF A SALESMAN. Photo by David Cimetta.
Among the supporting cast, Kevin Chick provides comic relief as his brother Hap. Steven Wright and Derrick Millard bring grounded personality to the more well-adjusted neighbors Charley and Bernard. And even in this powerfully acted and tautly directed staging, Russ Widdall manages to steal most every scene he enters as Willy’s brother Ben, his boss Howard, and accommodating waiter Stanley.
More than exploring the play’s Jewish roots, Savadove has mined its psychological roots. Portentous sound design by Robert Carlton and lighting by Matt Sharp sharpen the focus on Willy’s descent to madness. The audience is transported on his ride of delusions and regret. DEATH OF A SALESMAN is often seen as a cultural comment on the American Dream, in EgoPo’s production it is a moving look at a man, his son, and their personal tragedies. [Latvian Society, 531 N. 7th Street] October 24-November 9, 2014; egopo.org.
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Death of a Salesman (EgoPo Classic Theater)
This will seem an odd admission for a theatre critic, but here goes: I’ve never been entirely convinced by Death of a Salesman.
Oh, I’ve tried. Growing up, I was regularly reminded that Salesman was (no doubt, still is) considered a monumental American masterpiece. The ubiquity of this opinion got my contrarian impulses going – for example, giggling in class at Miller’s awkward attempts at poetry (“Nobody dast blame this man,” or the very name “Loman”), for which I was sternly reprimanded. I also sniffed at the play’s over-obviousness. In a typical example, it’s not enough that the Salesman deals with the metaphor of the American Dream; we must have a literal “American Dream” in the form of Willy’s fantasies about brother Ben’s trip to Alaska.
Looking back, some of my reaction was juvenile snarkiness over relatively minor details. But my antipathy to the play ran deeper, though it would take me decades and multiple exposures to understand it.
Today, though, I’m clearer about what turned me off about Salesman. It’s the sense that Willy and his family had so little resonance for me – specifically, the world of Miller’s play is unrelentingly heterosexual, one where the very existence of a gay person would be as alien as finding a Martian peddling insurance door-to-door.
Has any director or production attempted to excavate a gay subtext in Salesman? Not that I’ve seen, and I think it would be tough. I suppose Biff’s obsessions – football; an idealized, fantasy Western paradise where a man can grow and breathe – might be seen as overcompensation. Likewise Happy’s casual (degrading, really) treatment of women.
The trouble is I don’t think Miller sees it this way. He seems genuinely intoxicated by at least some of the machismo. Every male character in Salesman has a wife, or girlfriends, or whores (or all three). Even nerdy, “not well liked” Bernard is married with kids – Miller makes sure we know that.
And what of those female characters? Salesman is especially tough on them, starting with devoted, loving Linda, who most of the time is portrayed as desexualized and drab, practically a walking housedress. (If there’s a more nuanced spectrum of women than flirts and mother-wives, I don’t think Miller’s found it.)
It bothers me especially because a case is regularly made for Salesman’s universality. The playwright himself led the charge – always fond of trumpeting his own greatness, Miller wrote a much promoted and republished essay, Tragedy and the Common Man, where he places himself alongside Aeschylus and Shakespeare, as he positions Willy as Everyman. Tragedy and the Common Man irked me even more than the play itself.
For all these reasons, the most welcome aspect of EgoPo’s probing, sometimes visionary Death of a Salesman is the deliberate avoidance of “universality.”
Director Lane Savadove considers the play – generally acknowledged to have autobiographical resonance – in the light of Miller’s specifically working-class Jewish roots.
This isn’t the first time I’ve seen a “Jewish Willy Loman” – Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal certainly suggested that. But here, the family life and milieu feels specific. Ed Swidey’s Willy is a physically towering presence (in that sense, recalling the original Lee J. Cobb), but also a bearded, almost rabbinical one. Swidey – jittery from the start, but also at times frighteningly still – is often spellbinding. Mary Lee Bednarek, a vigorous and fierce Linda, is equally intriguing, and perhaps even more of a mold-breaker – for the first time, I saw Linda as sexual being. Together, they make the welcome point that Willy and Linda aren’t abstractions – they’re living, breathing, needy, troubled individuals.
Sean Lally, Ed Swidey, and Kevin Chick in Death of a Salesman (EgoPo Classic Theater)
Savadove has other brave ideas. He emphasizes the expressionist aspects of the script. This, too, isn’t wholly new – Jo Mielziner’s original scenery is famous in part because it deviates from realism, and I recall Robert Falls’ Broadway production (with Brian Dennehy) incorporating expressionistic elements.
But Savadove goes further. On the small stage, the Loman home (and environs) becomes a kind of dollhouse, where the action seems to take place in a mental space rather than specific rooms. Several actors take on multiple roles, sometimes necessarily switching mid-scene – again, this seems to reflect Willy’s hazy memory of events, rather than what actually occurred. Wrapping the stage is wall of windows, which reflects the best aspects of Savadove’s production – it is simultaneously realistic (in this case, the Brooklyn tenement apartments that impose on the Loman home) and the impressionistic fantasy world of Willy’s imagination.
Not all of Savadove’s innovations work quite so seamlessly. Some of the double-casting is confusing, and in general I think the first act is stronger than the second. But some of the daring ideas that I rejected initially I now think are fascinating – for example, having Charley and Bernard played by African American actors. Would the Loman’s likely have had (and socialized with) Black neighbors? Maybe not, but it makes us ponder – as surely Willy himself does – about the ever-shifting terrain of American social power.
I think EgoPo’s production deserves to be seen by anyone interested in canonical drama – and how it can be reinvigorated in production. And I’m personally grateful for the opportunity to question my own preconceptions about Death of a Salesman.
Death of a Salesman, EgoPo Classic Theater at the Latvian Society, through November 9th. www.egopo.org