Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Miller time at the Lyric Stage

Joseph Marrella, Kelby T. Akin, Paula Plum and Ken Baltin in Death of a Salesman.  Photo: Mark S. Howard

When playwright Arthur Miller died in 2005, you could sense a slight condescension in the eulogies. The great man hadn't written a hit in forty years, and his politics had gone sour; what's more, he had dissed Marilyn Monroe (who was briefly his wife) onstage, and wasn't there something slightly sexist - or even racist? - about all his white-bread tragic heroes?

But then came the revivals of his classic works, and all the condescension dried up in a hurry. For clearly there is nothing being written today that can match All My Sons, The Crucible, or Death of a Salesman - "the great American tragedy" of traveling salesman Willy Loman, which is now enjoying a harrowing revival at the Lyric Stage under the perceptive direction of Spiro Veloudos. I wouldn't argue this production is quite perfect (there is some odd casting around its edges, and a few technical missteps) but like all moving versions of this very great play, it gets at the heart of the matter - and so breaks ours. And in the process it showcases a clutch of lead performances that are, as the old saying goes, among the best of this or any other year.

A portrait of the artist as a young man.
Miller, of course, was pre-occupied with tragedy as a young man, and particularly with the challenge of translating this high classical mode to the context of modern America. Indeed, All My Sons (his break-out hit) maps quite obviously to the prescriptions of Aristotle's Poetics; in contrast, Salesman marks a subtler approach that seems to defy the great critic-philosopher in his specifics, but in the end honors him in their breach. The playwright famously fractures time and space, for instance, to draw us into his hero's growing delusions (indeed, his working title was "Inside His Head"). But in a way, the resulting stream-of-consciousness only represents a newfangled take on the classical "unities" of time and place; and if you look closely, you can still make out the bones of rising action, and climactic revelation, in the script's free-form structure. There's even a tragic anagnorisis (or "recognition") right where it should be (although tellingly, it's transferred from father Willy to son Biff).

And what of the hero's hamartia, or "tragic flaw"? Well, this was Miller's master stroke.  He made it the American dream itself - that determinedly optimistic, up-by-your-boot-straps philosophy that we imagine defines our nation. Hence traveling salesman Willy Loman (read "low-man"), who is hardly at the top of the American pecking order, can still claim the authority of one of Shakespeare's aristocrats - because he embodies our national dream. Only in Miller's view that dream amounts to a delusion, even a lie, which in its sunny narcissism ignores or denies the true ties that bind us to our family, friends and neighbors - and thus to the moral fabric of life itself.

And if the Lyric production itself has a dramatic flaw, it's that the shimmering American mirage of success that Miller means to conjure never shines quite brightly enough on its stage. The very greatest productions of this play briefly seduce us, too, with the sunny vision that glows, in shards, in Willy's memory: once, for a brief moment, he seemed the best salesman in the business, and his son was the college-bound captain of the football team, and anything seemed possible; only success and more success lay ahead.

The play proper, of course, reveals how that dream could never come true, and limns every moral corner the Lomans cut, every truth they couldn't face, every time they thought they could coast on a handshake and a smile rather than hard work. But what Miller also gets at, in a way that few playwrights (perhaps not even Shakespeare) have managed to do, is the deeper problem of disappointed love, particularly between fathers and sons. This is the buried blood-knot that unravels beneath the "plot" of Salesman: we slowly come to understand the frustrated bitterness between Willy and Biff, father and son, neither of whom, we realize, truly deserves to be loved, even though each must love the other if love is to have any meaning. It is this terrible contradiction - which operates in most lives, sooner or later, I suppose - which Miller captures in the crucible of this complex play, and it's what the Lyric production conveys particularly well.

This is largely thanks to the impressive work of two supporting leads - Paula Plum's achingly precise evocation of wife Linda, and Kelby T. Akin's committed turn as son Biff.  Plum manages superbly the difficult trick of giving Linda's love of her (nearly abusive) husband its full due - she just doesn't question it - while simultaneously conveying that she alone understands the true moral standing of her family, and the cost of never living up to what you claim to be. Akin meanwhile is all frayed loyalty and rising despair as Biff - you can almost feel the disgust eating away at him - and his final breakdown is wrenching indeed. But the surprise of the production is that newcomer Joseph Marrella's portrayal of brother Happy is almost as subtle; Marrella gives us both the need for approval that drives Happy's thirst for success, and the cheap tricks and sleazy moves he uses to slake it.

Framed by these three remarkable performances is a central turn by Ken Baltin as Willy that I believe may prove just as memorable; but on opening night, at least, Baltin was occasionally tripping over lines, and lacked the physical assurance that could dupe us into believing (along with Biff and Happy) that he was once indeed on the verge of fame and fortune. And the deep question of what precipitates Willy's eventual death - ironically, it's a moment of true connection with his son - seemed vague here; I didn't feel Baltin find the sudden, heartbreaking faith that could ignite his final fantasy. Still, this is a thoughtful and detailed interpretation; indeed, as a close portrait of Willy in decline, it's absorbing and almost painfully accurate.

The smaller roles were likewise directed and played with care, even if the casting was sometimes unusual.  Victor L. Shopov, for instance,  made a smoothly convincing (adult) lawyer of next-door-neighbor Bernard; but as a boy, he looked awfully mature, even in knickers.  Likewise Lyric stalwart Will McGarrahan seemed slightly miscast as Willy's brother Ben; McGarrahan had an appropriately vampiric gleam in his eye, but was hardly believable as a rough-and-ready explorer. And another familiar face at the Lyric, Larry Coen, seemed occasionally upstaged by his costuming - which included perhaps the largest raccoon coat I've ever seen.

Elsewhere, however, the design was quite strong, even compelling. Janie E. Howland's set hewed closely to the playwright's original vision (and the resulting close quarters only seemed to enhance the drama's intimacy), while Karen Perlow's lighting was often evocative. Best of all was Dewey Dellay's sound and music, which seemed to capture perfectly the poignantly conflicted depths of Miller's characters. In the end, we're unlikely to see a more touching version of their plight than what you'll find in this worthy production - to which I hear a few tickets still remain. You are hereby advised to snap them up immediately.

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