Monday, February 8, 2010

Death of a Salesman, Lakeland Civic Theatre

(Maryann Elder as Linda and Mark Cipra as Willy)

Every minute we are alive, we each live in a collision of times (who we are, who we were, who we’re trying to be) and perceptions (no one experiences the same event exactly the same way). It’s all quite complex to disentangle.

And no play ever written has dealt with those dynamics quite as profoundly as Arthur Miller does in Death of a Salesman, which is playing now at the Lakeland Civic Theatre. In 1955, sixty-three-year-old Willy Loman is a shlub for the ages as he tries to grapple with his declining skills as a travelling salesman, his unrealized dreams and his tragically frayed family.

Rather than just assembling another fairly straight rendition of this familiar script, director Martin Friedman and set designer Trad A Burns attempt to re-imagine the play to some degree. They are to be credited for trying to find a new way through this material, but the results are definitely mixed.

The set features a fairly standard Loman home interior on one side of the stage, and its mirror image right next to it. The mirror image retains the outline of the complete home, but the walls are blasted away, with only thin strips of wood here and there to define walls, and doors. In addition, Friedman has double cast the parts of Willy’s wife Linda and their two grown sons Biff and Happy, so that when Willy drifts off into reveries of the past he interacts with different players in those roles.

Moreover, Willy’s involuntary forays into the past are played in shadows, with all the people he encounters dressed in black. These set and costume designs send a confusing message, since the past is where most of Willy’s joy resides. If anything, the present-day set should be cold and depressing, and the past pumped with a rosy glow.

In any case, the acting in this production is consistently superior, even in the smaller roles. As Willy, Mark Cipra fully embodies his slowly collapsing character, slipping easily from delight to rage with his sons, with his wife, and a frustrating inability to deal with the world in general. This is a fiendishly difficult role and, even though he gropes at times for his lines, Cipra crafts a Willy that is true to Miller’s intent.

As the put-upon but indomitable old Linda, an excellent and understated Maryann Elder is slump-shouldered from all the psychological abuse she has endured. But, wisely or not, she will not sacrifice her love for this man.

It is when we come to the two sons that another problem arises. With the brothers double cast, it’s hard to follow who is who as the action slips back and forth from reality to recollection. This isn’t helped by the fact that young Biff (Sean Cahill) appears to be larger than old Biff. This casting decision tends to impair the audience’s ability to fully experience how the boys’ relationship with their father has deteriorated over time, since we're always trying to process basic identities.

But Christopher Richards as old Biff and Joe Pine as old Happy deliver believable turns, effectively bouncing off each other as brothers and then battling with the hazy, often hostile relic their father has become. In addition, Robert McCoy registers authority as Uncle Ben, the man who went into the jungle at 17 and emerged a rich man at 21, and Stuart Hoffman is fine as the young, efficient boss who finally shatters Willy’s fragile hold on the last shreds of sanity.

Whether or not you buy the inventive production twists cited above, Miller’s story of a road salesman at the bitter end of his ultimate route still resonates. And leaves you with haunting echoes.

Death of a Salesman

Through February 21 at Lakeland

Civic Theatre, Lakeland College, Routes

306 and 90, Kirtland, 440-525-7526

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