Death of a Salesman

Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Michael Menendian

At the Raven Theater in Chicago
Produced by Raven Theatre Company

A review by M. D. Ball of the performance on November 1, 2009

This review contains spoilers.

Doing a masterpiece of the American theater well requires understanding what has historically been called the "American Spirit". If there is an American spirit, one could argue that what defines it is a proclivity for risk-taking, an attraction to excitement, an entrepreneurial drive. Someone else, however, might point to less noble characteristics, such as greed, coarseness, or an urge to dominate. Whether we accept one interpretation or both, reality is that the economy in post-war America was booming and the country was prosperous; the so-called American Spirit had focused itself squarely on the American Dream, which was represented by material success -- a house, a car, and a television set -- and the prestige it brought.

Amidst this frenzy of materialism stands our irritating but sympathetic protagonist, Willy Loman. In his 60s, he's a financially-strapped salesman who, though successful in years past, can no longer seal the deal. Willy is obsessed with the American Dream -- with material wealth and the pride that accompanies it. Above all, however, he values being liked. And he lives under the delusion that he's capable of "greatness", despite being ordinary and, by all indications, incapable of rising above mediocrity. Chuck Spencer, who played Willy in this production, imbued his role with an anxiety that never released its grip on the man, with a sense of desperation that swelled and receded with the circumstances. Spencer sculpted a man whose emotions swung widely and suddenly, a volatile man given to hasty over-reaction at best and paroxysms of temper at worst.

But Willy is slowly losing his mind, and the author lets us see what Willy sees as he drifts in and out of his hallucinations. Although Spencer capitalized on this to make Willy both detestable and pitiable, what he did most skillfully was to balance Willy on the edge of an outburst or a breakdown even in moments of comparative calm. In my opinion, Spencer rightfully played his character at the psychological intersection of social pressure, economic pressure, personal goals, personal disappointments, and deepening mental illness, precisely where collisions are expected. I was comfortably uncomfortable whenever Willy was on stage.

Linda, Willy's wife, is hardly a spouse worthy of emulation. She shields her husband from reality, fails to stand between him and his foolish decisions, and makes excuses for his irrationality. JoAnn Montemurro's Linda was forbearing, though her fuse wasn't infinitely long, and she gave the impression of having grown weary of tolerating her husband's mercuriality.

In the role of the Lomans' son Biff, Jason Huysman was inconsistent in the quality of his acting. He sometimes delivered his lines as though he was reading them off a cue card that he couldn't see clearly. In fact, his least laudable moment in the play was Biff's chiding of the two young women in the restaurant for failing to recognize his father's implicit greatness. Through these several lines his acting was worse than second-rate. And even though Biff is nervous by nature, Huysman sometimes pushed it to the point of embarrassing theatricality, detracting from the greater genuineness of Spencer's performance.

Although Bernard's role in the play is small, it reveals, by virtue of contrast, the foolishness of Willy's attitudes, in particular, his dismissal of Bernard's intellect in favor of Biff's personality. Years later, despite reaching lofty heights in his career as a lawyer, Bernard remains tactful and resists the temptation to gloat about his success in Willy's face. Kevin Hope, while capturing Bernard's quiet dignity as an adult professional who remembers the insults he endured as a boy, was a bit clumsy in the role and even more awkward in his delivery than was Huysman in his.

The second act of this performance suffered from the same deterioration as did this very company's production of Hedda Gabler last spring, which was markedly worse. With the exception of Spencer and possibly Montemurro, the actors began to evince a tiredness -- an indifference, perhaps -- and the polish that the actors had buffed to a respectable luster in the first act faded. The final scene, in fact, was so rushed and perfunctory that it damaged what the company had used the entire first act to build, arguably detroying the effect Miller might otherwise have achieved. And as the lights went down on Linda's graveside tears, there was no time to absorb the impact of this turn of events because the quick shift into curtain-call mode rudely truncated the experience.