Regional Reviews: Chicago
Death of a Salesman
Chuck Spencer is devastating from the moment he steps on stage as travelling salesman Willy Loman: madly fuming under his breath that he's "got to get off the road" and nearly broken by the weight of his heavy, anonymous sample cases. Then, gathering his faculties at last, he proceeds to literally split his own house in half: shoving apart the two pieces of a garage exterior to reveal the set, and the life, inside.
There, the promise of the family's ruin is upheld by director Michael Menendian, who creates unnerving images of the corruption of football star-son Biff (Jason Huysman) by his own brother Happy (Greg Caldwell). Both have come home to find their father is losing his mind, and still trying be "well-liked" in spite of his increasingly dangerous behaviors. But that "well-liked" business builds a strange kind of hubris in him, and in his sons. And while Willy seems deeply invested in his creed, Mr. Caldwell (as Happy) carefully twists it into sociopathic nihilism. This leaves Biff, the older brother, caught in the unbearable middle. Time after time, Happy seems to lead him to the gates of Hell, with phony stories that appease their father and attract young women. And still, each time, some distraction prevents Biff from taking up a permanent residence in there. But eventually, for Biff and his father, the conflict between outward idealism and inner duplicity takes its toll, with wondrous theatrical results.
In a question-and-answer session after the play, Mr. Spencer talked about Willy's time-slips, which send him back to his children's childhood, and into reveries with a deceased older brother (Jerry Bloom). Ben supposedly plundered Alaska for gold, and African for diamonds. But in Willy's tall tales, his brother never had any sleazy hotel adventures like his own, nor got weighed down by those infamous sample cases. Somehow, Mr. Spencer keeps Willy perfect natural: even when these little rah-rah moments become too real for him, and beyond that, when his smiling sales pitch reddens into a state of choking anger, as his uplifting anecdotes become a barking judgment day defense. After the show, the actor genially put these "spells" down to some kind of dementia. But combined with his funny, proud/humble bonhomie, Chuck's Spencer's portrayal of early senility (or what have you) utterly grabs the audience by the throat. And what raises him, and the entire production, into colossal stature is the outward pretense of an "Ozzie and Harriet" charm, set against the corruption of men who spend too much time on the road. Thanks to him, Willy's furies are a warning to keep us clear of his dark side, and away from his unopened sample cases, leaden with a secret unlikability.
JoAnn Montemurro manages to turn the character of Willy's long-suffering wife into a beautiful figure of sterling qualities, whose persistent love almost seems to redeem her husband, in the end. It's possible that director Menendian may be over-using the imagery of a modest woman, darning her own stockings, just a bit (dangling them almost like a pair of nautical flags at one point, warning of rocky shoals ahead) though in every instance, he brings the energetic power of fable to this crucial piece of theater.
Jerry Bloom does well as the fantastic ghost of Willy's brother, and Ron Quade is remarkably varied and real and intense as his sympathetic neighbor Charlie. Willy famously describes him as "not well liked," though it's pretty clear this Charlie doesn't need to go around campaigning for a sense of self-worth, nor as an expert on likability. And Kevin Hope is charming as Charlie's son, who's apparently had the benefit of more focused father. (The younger actor also races through three quick costume changes in a row, at one point providing a source of amused speculation for aficionados of backstage drama). Anthony Tournis displays great layering of thought and perhaps even a hatred of management as Willy's young boss and also appears as an elegant waiter who knows (and sees) too much. Three lovely young women (Devon Candura, Alexis Atwill and Susie Griffith) also show great conviction and intelligence and wit in their portrayals of the silly girls who are targets of the Loman men's desires. Larger than the sum of all its parts, this Salesman is a great production of America's greatest play.
Now extended through January 16, 2010, at the Raven Theatre, 6157 North Clark (at Granville). For more information call (773-338-2177) or visit them on-line at www.raventheatre.com.
Cast (in alphabetical order)