"A small man can be as exhausted as a great man."
Death of A Salesman, one of the most acclaimed American plays of the 20th century, ran for 745 performances in 1949 and won the Pulitzer Prize later that year. Comprised primarily of flashbacks chronicling the downfall of a sixty-three year old man struggling to keep his career alive, the script is a relentless, melancholy exercise in the American Dream gone terribly wrong. Playwright Arthur Miller crafted a semi-linear, intricate narrative that defies the laws of naturalism by skillfully writing scenes that move seamlessly in and out of dialogue depicting family drama, corporate greed, and the escalating dementia of the title character, Willie Loman. Unable to let go of his flawed, supercilious belief in personable charm as the measure of a good man, Willie never fully recognizes his utterly fictional claim to fame as the ever-popular New England representative for a New York company. His two sons, Biff and Happy, become traumatized side-effects of his lifelong delusion, while wife Linda occupies a stalwart, altruistic position as the ever-loving spouse unable to say a single negative thing about her dear demented hubby.
The current Soulpepper ensemble takes this lengthy script and manages, under the direction of Albert Schultz, to create a moving and energetic two hours and fifty five minutes in the theatre - never lapsing into the drudgery of non-stop, abject emotion for a moment, finding the humour and the pathos necessary to a successful production of a play that could easily become bogged down by the never ending tragedy of the text. Nancy Palk plays the role of Linda with genuine affection, and the power and dignity necessary in order to render the famous “attention must be paid” speech with absolute conviction. Palk’s husband, Joeseph Zeigler, in the role of Willy, employs immense emotional range and impeccable timing as he shows his muddled brand of love for his onstage wife with the intrusive, overlapping, bickering dialogue that characterizes his abusive rhetorical gabbing during the heyday of his tragic downfall. And this is perhaps the true strength of the Soulpepper production. Director Albert Schultz has wrought, from a diverse palette of glory and ghastliness, the sense of a man and a family blinded by glory and bogged down by illusion. The cast and director have created a believable family of actors who understand, with each facial gesture and each emotion, the intricacy of thought and feeling essential to their characters. Tim Campbell’s beleaguered Happy winces at every word his father utters as he takes a backseat to Biff, the favored son. But when the stakes heighten and Happy has the opportunity to create his own brand of paternalistic bravado, he never falters, defending himself and his father’s delusional ways at every turn. Ari Cohen’s Biff finds a truly elegant range of emotion as he moves from brash argumentative son to a character struggling against all odds to be honest with himself and a father who triggered Biff’s own lifelong struggle to become a great man. The emotional range sought by the ensemble weakens only slightly at pivotal moments for the extremely difficult ‘crying scenes’ - scenes that might have been sculpted a little more judiciously with an eye for suppressed inner turmoil rather than overt emotion. Ziegler finds his teary moments in a successful, restrained, glassy-eyed mode, while some of the other actors don’t quite reach the summit of their chosen emotional peaks. These heart- wrenching highs are achieved in so many other ways that the tearless wailing that marks some of the later scenes appears somewhat overplayed and slightly cringeworthy.
Nevertheless, the overall production is a tour de force for a twelve actor ensemble that embarks upon this incredible urban journey, allowing an audience to laugh, cry, and frequently wince at the sometimes wanton, sometimes whimsical wanderings of men half in love with themselves and half in love with the women they - perhaps unconsciouslly? - use as pawns in their timeworn homosocial game of emotional monopoly. This is a nearly perfect production of a classic script that endures changing social histories as it reflects the ongoing roller coaster of capitalist economies with its universal themes on life, love, and the pursuit of a secure income. Not to be missed!!!
held over at the Young Centre (Distillery District) until November 20th