Monday, February 17, 2014

Lyric Stage Company of Boston Closes The Deal With A Moving Production of "Death Of A Salesman"

In the Director's notes in the program for the Lyric Stage Company of Boston's current production of "Death of a Salesman," Spiro Veloudos makes the following statement: "I have chosen a play that is considered by many as the greatest play of the 20th Century."  Having seen this play presented by the remarkable team of artists and craftsmen at the Lyric, I cannot argue with this verdict.  The play is timeless in its themes and continues to stand as a cautionary tale that "Attention must be paid" - even 65 years after Arthur Miller's classic drama first appeared on stage.

What makes this production so remarkable and so worthy of rapt attention is the seamless way in which all of the elements coalesce in the telling of this tragic tale. The cast is well chosen,  They are directed by Spiro Veloudos with a nuanced approach that frees them to bring out all of the complexity of their characters.  The set designed by Janie E. Howland is compact and cramped - like the lives of the Lomans.  The period set offers wonderful juxtapositions of action taking place in different places and different times - sometimes in reality and sometimes in the dream world of the characters.  The atmospheric music composed by Dewey Dellay uses subdued double reeds to create a haunting backdrop for the actions unfolding upon the stage. The lighting designed by Karen Perlow and costumes designed by Gail Astrid Buckley complete the world and set the stage that allows each of these gifted actors to "sell their wares."

The Lomans - Linda, Willy, Hap and Biff
Set designed by Janie E. Howland
The ensemble members have been carefully and perfectly cast.  They each carry their own bag and carry their weight.  Each one, no matter how long or how briefly they may appear on stage, contributes their own notes to the symphony of words,actions and emotions that Miller has composed in this play.

The cast:
Ken Baltin -Willy Loman
Paula Plum - Linda
Joseph Marrella - Happy
Kelby T. Akin- Biff
Victor L. Shopov - Bernard
Eve Passeltiner - The Woman
Larry Coen - Charley
Will McGahhahan - Uncle Ben
Omar Robinson - Harold Wagner
Margarita Martinez - Jenny
Jaime Carrillo - Stanley
Jordan Clark - Miss Forsythe
Amanda Spinella - Letta

Standing out among this very able group of actors are the four members of the Loman family.

  • Ken Baltin conveys the essence of Willy Loman from the first instance when he enters from off stage.  He is slumped and weighed down - both by his sample cases and by the cumulative weight of years of literal travel and metaphysical pilgrimage on his gerbil wheel.  He is simultaneously defeated and ready to throw in the towel while still clinging to the tattered remnants of his dream that his football star son, Biff, will make it big.
  • Paula Plum as Linda fully inhabits this role.  On an average day on stage, Ms. Plum is merely magnificent.  On her best days, she is transcendent, as she was in the performance I observed.  She plays the faithful wife and cheerleader while carrying around the lingering fear that Willy is trying to kill himself.  She soldiers on despite being ignored and verbally intimidated by Willy who will not let her get a word in edgewise when he is declaiming his philosophy of life and sales - which to him are the same thing.  How ironic that Arthur Miller places in her mouth the oft-quoted phrase: "Attention must be paid."  For attention is seldom paid to her and her needs.  Her soliloquy at Willy's grave is a fitting capstone and headstone to this production. "We're free!"  Stunning!
Kelby T.Akin as Biff
Joseph Marrella as Hap
Paul Plum as Linda
  • Joseph Marrella is the neglected son, Happy.  He might just as well have been christened "Not Biff," for he cannot seem to find a way to attract his father's attention or affection, not being the stud football star that Biff was.  Yet he soldiers on trying to be the good son and to make his father proud while toiling away buried well down the corporate ladder in an unsatisfying job.  Mr. Marrella handles the tensions inherent in this character with great dexterity.
  • Kelby T. Akin embodies Biff to perfection - the look, the physique, the attitude, the lostness, and the barely capped volcano of rage and disappointment at his father's hypocrisy.  He transverses the wide spectrum of emotions that Biff feels without ever tripping up by over-acting.
Kelby T. AKin as Biff
Ken Baltin as Willy

In addition to the actors who portray the members of the Loman household, the following caught my eye.
  • Victor L. Shopov plays Bernard, the Lomans' neighbor and boyhood friend of Biff.  Bernard is the Yin to Biff's Yang - responsible, studious, unathletic.  He tries to function as Biff's life raft when Biff blows off studying to focus on being the football hero, but ultimately Biff is left to dine on his banquet of consequences.  Bernard climbs the ladders of success as an attorney while in counterpoint Biff's life and career circle the drain in despair and spite.
  • Will McGarrahan is Willy's brother Ben - a spectral presence who functions as The Ghost of Opportunities Lost.  Willy often fantasizes conversations with his departed brother, frequently bemoaning his fate of not having taken the risk of going to Alaska or going into the Amazon with Ben.
It is often my experience in revisiting a familiar play that I experience the play differently than I did earlier in my life.  It may be that I am seeing something new because the director or actors or set designer have shone a different kind of light on the subject matter.  Or it may be that my current station in life has given me new lenses through which to view the themes of the play.  In the case of my experience in being moved by this production of "Death of a Salesman," I believe that both sets of dynamic are in play.  The presentation of the text of the play is thoughtful and faithful to Miller's concept, as I understand it.  And my station in life as the father of grown sons allows me to observe Willy and Biff and Hap in ways I have not heretofore noticed. This is part of the wonder of live theater.

I invite you to partake in this miracle of creativity.  "Death of a Salesman" will run through March 15 at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon Street, in Boston's Back Bay.

Enjoy - and be moved!


Lyric Stage Company Website


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