Death of a Salesman

by Lewis Whittington
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Oct 28, 2014
Ed Swidey, Mary Lee Bednarek, Sean Lally & Kevin Chick
Ed Swidey, Mary Lee Bednarek, Sean Lally & Kevin Chick  (Source:Dave Cimetta Photography )

In the pantheon of great plays, Arthur Miller's "Death of A Salesman" remains right at the top. Elia Kazan's landmark 1949 Broadway production changed theater, acting, playwrighting and finally, renewed a public desire for substantive American drama. That landmark production starred the legendary Lee J. Cobb as doomed Willy Loman and Mildred Dunnock as his dutiful wife Linda. Any revival invites comparison, but enough time has passed that even memories of their defining performances have now faded.

The play is required reading in schools everywhere, as a prime exemplar of American dramatic literature, but it has only been revived on Broadway four times in 65 years, the last time in 2012 with Philip Seymour Hoffman playing Willy. The play's structural innovations were so influential to the broader theater that his original ideas can now seem like clich├ęs. Miller's soul-baring soliloquies are so famous that, by now, if not handled with precision and subtlety, they can play as hothouse melodrama.

Fortunately, at EgoPo Theater director Lane Savadove overcomes these potential issues by taking "Salesman" out from under glass and letting it breathe. Savadove first adds a prologue with the actors moving around in pantomime on the day of Willy's Shiva and the play commences as a flashback. The director shifts focus from being all about Willy's psychotic breakdown to the other characters in the play. Savadove admirably attends to the period atmospherics by not backing off on any of Miller's operatic aesthetic.

Everyone knows the story: Willy is at the end of his rope after being a traveling salesman for 30 years and is losing his grip on reality. His grown sons Biff and Happy have returned to their boyhood home for a reunion, but old quarrels and recriminations flare up. His wife Linda tries to keep the family together and help Willy cope, even though he lies, cheats and verbally abuses her without a thought.

The troubled relationships reflect Miller's themes of hubris in the American dream. Willy's pride, envy and ego tear down his dignity and mental stability, but ultimately, not his humanity. It was a raw look into the American psyche and in some ways, the play resonates now more than ever.

EgoPo's uniformly fine ensemble cast and Savadove approach to the material is like experiencing the play anew. As Willy, Ed Swidey gives a full-throated, thrilling performance, even with his Brooklyn accent occasional taking Southern side trips. Willy's darkest anxieties are expressed not just through his obsessive banter; Swidey makes it just as much a physical performance of harrowing depression.

As Willy's wife Linda, Mary Lee Bednarek not only has her Brooklyn dialect locked in, she also doesn't let Linda come off as a suffering doormat to Willy's ways. Bednurak's powerful and measured performance is truly memorable. As Hap, their youngest son, Kevin Chick is flawless in his an unapologetic period swagger and expressing his complicated rivalry with his older brother. Sean Lally, who played the complex "Gint" in EgoPo's updated version Ibsen's "Peer Gynt" earlier this year, outdoes himself with his sensitive and volcanic portrayal of Biff.

The fine supporting cast starts with Anna Zaida Szapiro and Kaitlin Kemp, playing Miller's sketchy cheap date roles for the brothers and for Willy's out-of-town dalliances. Russ Widdall should dial down his Yiddish accent as the spectre of Willy's rich uncle Ben, but is pitch-perfect as Howard, Willy's condescending boss.

As Charlie, Steven Wright is the embodiment of reason and humor. Derrick Millard plays Biff's cousin Bernard too nerdy-fey in the high school scenes as forced comic relief, but Millard redeems as the adult Bernard, now a successful lawyer trying to console a broken-down Willy. Both of these actors are African American and this casting is another way EgoPo commits to an unconventional, theater forward approach in reviving classics.

Simplified but effective set design by Dirk Durossette smartly uses every inch of the modest theater space at the Latvian Society. The lighting design by Matt Sharp blends shadows and hues to evoke the period-evoking atmospherics. Sound designer Robert Carlton floats in Jewish hymns and chants at various points to great effect.

"Death of A Salesman" runs through Nov. 9 at the EgoPo Classic Theater at The Latvian Society, 531 N 7th St, Philadelphia, PA. For information or tickets, call 267-273-1414 or visit www.egopo.org

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.


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