When a theater attempts to stage a true American classic such as Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, an audience member may tend to approach it with one eye squinted. There is always a fear that the people involved will give the renowned material too much deference or, in the opposite direction, will try to imbue it with so much import that the characters feel puffed up and false.
It is a pleasure to report that neither of those things happen on the Ensemble Theatre stage. Instead, what we have is a well-tailored, beautifully nuanced production that gets almost everything right. Under the sensitive direction of Celeste Cosentino, and employing the color-blind casting for which Ensemble has become known, this Salesman glides smoothly over Miller's words and then packs a devastating punch at the end.
Aside from Cosentino, the lion's share of the praise must go to Greg White, who takes on the iconic role of Willy Loman. He eschews the grand, larger-than-life Lomans that have been essayed by spectacular actors such as Lee J. Cobb (in the original 1949 stage production) and Frederick March (in the 1951 film version), and the overly mannered, slightly daft interpretations done by fellows named Hoffman (Dustin in the 1985 TV version and Philip Seymour in the 2012 stage version).
Instead, White fully embodies this noble yet often deluded person in real human size, making him a bent paperclip of a man. He's a slumped, baggy-pants, on-the-road salesman, but he's no clown: He's someone who still has all his essential raw material assets but who has been distorted by time and his own demons of betrayal and abandonment. White's Willy has always fervently believed in the American Dream, and now it has come to kill him for his devotion to that ephemeral illusion.
Like a top-flight quarterback, White also makes everyone around him better. Slipping in and out of reality, as the past continually asserts itself in Willy's mind, White and his fellow cast members craft one emotionally impactful scene after another. As Willy's wife Linda, Mary Alice Beck is completely natural and loving, defending her man even against the careless injuries inflicted by his own sons.
Those sons, Biff and Happy, played by Keith E. Stevens and Johnathon L. Jackson respectively, each have their own telling moments. Jackson is particularly effective when playing the young, teenage Happy, who looks up to his brother Biff with awe. Then he morphs Happy into a smooth-talking, shallow adult who has a way with the ladies. Stevens' Biff, although a bit forced at times, is spot-on and shattering at the end when he confronts his father with his own truth about the failure he has become.
The supporting roles are also handled with deft precision. Joseph Milan as good neighbor Charley is solid throughout, then delivers the famous "smile and a shoeshine" speech with understated elegance. Charley's nerdy son Bernard (an amusing and then convincing James Rankin) serves as Biff and Willy's adolescent punching bag until his intelligence and work ethic trumps the Lomans' reliance on personal attractiveness and being "really well liked."
August Scarpelli is brutally dismissive as Howard, the boss who finally fires Willy and sends the old man reeling into his inevitable demise. And Steven Hood is a memorable and resonant Uncle Ben, the polished man who sums up the dream Willy is chasing with the words: "When I was 17, I walked into the jungle, and when I was 21, I walked out ... and by God I was rich!"
The few missteps happen, not so curiously, when White is off the stage. The first scene with Biff and Happy in their bedroom never finds the right arc and fails to establish their characters clearly. And when mom and her two sons are in the kitchen and Beck delivers Linda's famous "attention must be paid" speech, the beats are rushed and the moment lands with a peculiar thud.
But those are the rare flat notes in this gloriously orchestrated production. It is aided by Ron Newell's compact set design, which blends the rooms of the Loman house — the one that is finally paid for — in the same way the past and present blend together in Willy's mind. And the large yet unobtrusive projections designed by Ian Hinz and Steven Barton help create the world the Lomans inhabit.
The one scene that White isn't in, and which works wonderfully, is the last one. Linda, crushed by the devastating irony of being "free and clear" and alone, goes to her knees at the grave site. And thanks to the power of this production, you will be right there with her.
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