Review: Death Of A Salesman (Soulpepper)

By Adam Collier

Soulpepper is producing Death Of A Salesman now until November 20th at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts.

One of the things I was most curious to see was the set. Though I had read the play a few times, the set – a sort of abbreviated version of a small home in Brooklyn, as Arthur Miller describes it in the text – had always been difficult for me to imagine. So I took my seat a few moments early to view it alone.

As it appears onstage the home is an amalgam of three low levels: a living room, the bedroom of Willy and Linda Loman, and the bedroom of their two sons, Biff – the eldest, in his thirties – and Happy. Overhead is a huge, heavy roof.

At first I was struck by a sense of clutter. The rooms seem to blend into one another. The roof seemed large and out of proportion; hanging like the sword of Damocles over the entire stage, when, in actuality it only hangs above the home. Not more than ten-minutes into the action though, the intuitive logic of this set design (by Lorenzo Savoini) comes through.

That the characters are in such close proximity to one another gave me the resonant sense of how claustrophobic – emotionally and physically – this family is.

What also struck me is how, when Willy (played by the gravelly-voiced Joseph Ziegler) drifts into the past, the characters move upstage into what seems like an enormous expanse. In the past, they’re outside. Biff (Ari Cohen) and Happy (Tim Campbell) are running around or washing Willy’s car, or else they’re ganging-up on the dweebish Bernard (Gregory Prest).

Watching Soulpepper’s production was, on one level, an intellectual pleasure, because the text made a lot more sense to me. And when Willy is onstage, usually I found the work entertaining.

Mr. Ziegler as Willy puts on a great show. He seems to so effortlessly transform from the 63-year old Willy – who at one point is so exhausted by a routine sales call, that Linda is left to take off his shoes – into a man, maybe two decades earlier, full of confidence (“hot air” as Biff later calls it).

What I just couldn’t get used to though, was Mr. Cohen’s Biff. For the most part, the timing and gestures were okay – nothing was too fast or indicated. But Mr. Cohen spoke in what sounded to me like a bad John F. Kennedy impression.

To give the actor the benefit of the doubt, maybe there’s a back-story that explains the New England accent. Although in the text Miller suggests Biff has gone south to work as a ranch hand, leaving Brooklyn, where the family has lived in the same house for decades.

Other than that quirk in the delivery, Miller’s lines sound as good as ever. Some of them – especially the exchange between Biff and Happy in their childhood bedroom – struck me more poignantly than ever before, because I have been having similar thoughts about what I want to do with my life.

If you have a chance, this is a production worth checking-out.

Details

Death Of A Salesman runs until November 20th at the Young Centre from the Performing Arts (55 Mill Street; in the Distillery district).

– The show begins at 7:30 Monday through Saturday. There is a matinee showing on Saturdays at 1:30.

– Ticket prices range from between $31 and $75

– For more info, please call 416-866-8666, or check the website www.soulpepper.ca

Photo of Tim Campbell, Ari Cohen, Joseph Ziegler, Nancy Palk by Cylla von Tiedemann.