Joseph Ziegler & Ari Cohen. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Reviewed by James Karas
***** (out of 5)
Two years ago, the redoubtable Soulpepper Theatre Company staged an outstanding production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. The same production is now back with some cast changes at the Young Centre in Toronto’s Distillery District.
The heart of the production, directed by Albert Schultz, is Joseph Ziegler’s performance as Willy Loman, the travelling salesman. Ziegler is so convincing as the tired, irascible, irrational dreamer that you adopt him as the quintessential depiction of the character. He exudes the powerful illusions that Loman harbours and passes on to his two sons to the point of destroying their lives as well as his own. The drama is searing and the raw pain felt by the Loman family is fully shared by the audience.
Willy’s son Biff (Ari Cohen) is a clone of his father. A petty thief, a nobody, a bum, in his own words, he believes that he is a great entrepreneur and a leader of men. His conviction is based on what his father has told him and on nothing more concrete than illusory dreams. Cohen brings out Biff’s empty bravado, his meanness, pettiness and, in the end, his self-realization. An outstanding performance.
Mike Ross as Happy, the other son, is just as deluded about his abilities and just as capable of lying to himself and others. In the end, he remains his father’s true creation and still thinks he can “make it.” A very good performance.
William Webster plays the debonair and self-assured Uncle Ben, Willy’s successful brother who has mysteriously become wealthy.
The opposites to the Lomans are their neighbours Charley (Michael Hanrahan) and his son Bernard (Gregory Prest). Charley is decent, successful, sympathetic and generous. Prest as Bernard was treated badly by the Loman boys and he may have been a bit geeky but he had brains and used them to earn success as a lawyer rather than dream of accomplishment without any effort. Stellar performances by Hanrahan and Prest.
The holder of the centre, the person who sees it all and tries to keep family and sanity intact is Willy’s wife Linda, played superbly by Nancy Palk. She supports, cajoles, encourages, endures and loves her husband and her sons until she realizes the baseness of her children. Marvelous work by Palk.
The set by Lorenzo Savoini was minimalist with an ordinary kitchen in the foreground and the boys’ bedroom a few steps up to the back. A panel on the right was used to project images of green branches, neon signs for the motel sequence, tall buildings for the New York street scenes and an imposing apartment building for the present location of the Loman house. The set worked reasonably well but seemed incomplete and could have been larger and more imposing.
Soulpepper has a very ambitious number of productions and it has taken over the classical repertoire as far as theatre in Toronto is concerned. It has also adopted a system of bringing back productions that sometimes seems like a bad habit. The problem is probably financial and it is hard to argue with an ambitious programme that runs into a lean budget. The latter will always win and if critics and audiences want more productions all they have to do, I suppose, is cough up the dough
Death of a Salesman has been analyzed as a critique of the American Dream, a commentary on the vacuity of American capitalism and a presentation of the common man as a tragic hero.
No doubt it is all of that and much more but in the present production it is also a great night at the theatre.
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller opened on September 8 and will run in repertory until October 6, 2012 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca 416 866-8666.