Death Of A Salesman

by Becky Sarwate
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Sunday Oct 18, 2009
Kevin Hope, Jason Huysman, Chuck Spencer, Greg Caldwell in Raven Theatre’s production of Death of a Salesman. Photo: Dean la Prairie
Kevin Hope, Jason Huysman, Chuck Spencer, Greg Caldwell in Raven Theatre’s production of Death of a Salesman. Photo: Dean la Prairie  

By the time the emotionally draining (in the best possible way) production of Raven Theatre's Death of a Salesman, lowers the curtain, it is a wonder that lead Chuck Spencer, playing the titular role of psychologically scarred salesman Willy Loman, doesn't simply collapse backstage with exhaustion. Giving new meaning to the term "leaving it all out there," Spencer turns himself inside out in order to give audience members a transcendent experience of grief and disappointment. These efforts are so successful, and in turn so highly rewarded, that the sound of sniffles and coughs was as audible as applause when the cast came back to the stage to take their bows.

Ushering in the 27th season of the Raven Theatre's annual slate, the play is well chosen in fostering a dialogue to address a timelessly American question. What happens when everything we have worked for, everything we have believed in, comes crashing down around us? How does one cope when forced to come to terms with their own relative insignificance? It is of course Willy's tragic flaw that he is unable to reposition himself in a world that no longer seems to need him. Spencer digs in to express the variety of psyche threatening emotions that besiege the character in a master class of immersion. It is nearly impossible to recall that you are watching an actor as the tense drama unfolds.

Set in new York in 1949 and alternating between present situations and past moments of significance via flashback, Death of a Salesman chronicles the mental decline of Willy Loman as he begins to recognize that his lifelong mantra, "Be liked and you will never want," may have been foolishly naive. However, beyond shouldering the burden for his own failures, Willy fears that his mistake in ideology may very well have cost his sons their shot at success too. Former football Golden Boy, Willy's oldest son Biff (Jason Huysman), is now 34 years old, living the life of a veritable vagabond, while younger son Hap (Greg Caldwell) is a lower middle management philanderer, more interested in tail than financial gain.

Trying with all her might to be the life affirming, sunny glue that holds her husband and family together, Linda Loman (played with desperate, rational fear by JoAnn Montemurro), recognizes her husband's decline and makes it perfectly clear that she will sacrifice anything, even her own sons, to try to keep her partner afloat. Linda Loman is more than just the ultimate loyal wife. Arguably, she is the only character in the play who has a true sense of sense of her family's impending doom. She lets her awareness slip when she quietly tells her children that their father is dying, well before the production's destructive climax. And it is Linda who must try to pick up the pieces, lamenting through heartbroken tears, "We are home free!" as the play closes. Montemurro's diminutive size presents an ironic contrast to the tremendous well of inner strength with which she infuses Linda.

As the production opens, a haunting video montage chronicling the lonely, repetitive life of the traveling salesman is played, using the garage door that doubles as the entrance to the Loman home as a screen. This inventive use of grainy footage to set the tone before a word is spoken is credited to Scenic Design & Technical Director Andrei Onegin. The set itself is a work of art. It spins, it tilts, it lends itself to repeated conversions into realistic interpretations of the Loman kitchen, an Italian restaurant, or any number of the nameless motels that Willy calls home each week. In companion with steady Direction from Michael Menendian, the players use every inch of available space, both on and off the stage, to weave a web of tragic inevitability that Willy himself set in motion 17 years ago.

There are many tense relationships explored in the play: the conflict between personal magnetism and good hard work as the path to success for example, as personified by the disparity between Big Man on Campus Biff and nerdy, uncool neighbor boy Bernard (played by Kevin Hope). Once content to do little more than bask in his popular friend's glow, Willy is cut to the quick when Bernard matures into a responsible attorney and family man, while his own cherished progeny grows into an adult at loose ends.

However, the most interesting foils by far are Willy and Biff. Willy has built his whole life around Biff, the idea that he would graduate and go to college as a great football star, that he would morph into the man Willy himself yearns to be, handsome, electric, a tremendous business success with doors opening faster than he can walk through them. Biff, disillusioned by the unveiling of his father's fallibility 17 years before the play opens, struggles between wanting to be his patriarch's ideal and listening to the inner voice which tells him not to be a part of the machine. The audience is able to feel, see, hear and fully experience this great tug of war through the physical and emotional efforts of Spencer and Huysman. Where Spencer is hunched and frantic, Huysman is strapping and silently stronger than anyone might expect. It is difficult to imagine better casting for the roles.

Willy Loman spends the bulk of the play tormented by the metaphorical Biff, the Biff of Willy's dreams, as well as his own version of the Grand Inquisitor, the ghost of his elder brother Ben, a mythologized force that seems to shrink Willy further with each repetition of his rags to riches legend. Unemployed, shattered and unable to cope with a life of inconspicuous retirement, Willy makes one final choice that he hopes will provide Biff the financial backing he needs to get it together. What Loman fails to understand however is that his son is just fine with a life of anonymous labor. He does not need to be "well liked," because he has accepted his place in the world. The failure of Willy to accept ordinariness is the well from which the final tragedy is drawn.

The two and a half hour production (with one brief intermission) is an investment of more than your time. To experience the Raven Theatre's emotional tour de force, the audience is asked to exhibit the same emotional strength as the dedicated players. This is one that will haunt you long after you exit the theater. Due to strong language and adult situations, the show is not recommended for younger viewers. For the adult populace however, even those familiar with the Arthur Miller classic, be ready to experience Death of a Salesman in a bracing, yet refreshingly intense new way.

Death of a Salesman runs through December 5, 2009 at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark Street Chicago.

Performance schedule:: Thursday - Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 3pm. Info phone: 773-338-2177. For more information visit the Raven Theatre Web site.

Becky Sarwate is the President of the Illinois Woman's Press Association, founded in 1885. She's also a part-time freelance writer, award-winning columnist and blogger who lives in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago with her partner Bob and their pet menagerie . Keep up with Becky at

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