Review: Death of a Salesman (Soulpepper)

Soulpepper brings back a great theatre classic with their remount of Death of a Salesman at Toronto’s Young Centre for the Performing Arts.

Death of a Salesman is not an unknown play. Chances are, the bulk of you who are reading this now have read it or seen it, if only once, before you hit the age of twenty-two. You might’ve suffered through it in ninth grade English, or played Willy Loman with great and depressive gumption in your college’s drama club’s production. For a remount of such a frequently-performed piece, Soulpepper still doesn’t blink twice and delivers a wholehearted, well-rounded performance.

You might find your mouth agape with shock and awe when I say that I’ve never read this Arthur Miller play. I know my companion for the evening did.

“Say what?” Were the words of my very good friend Elana as we sat in the theatre.

“I’ve never read Arthur Miller at all, actually,” I replied.

“Do you want a quick run-down?” She asked, still surprised, but without much time to dwell on it as the lights dimmed.

Elana didn’t give me much of a run-down except to point out that the title gives the ending away (and in case you’re like me, and have never seen or read the play, I won’t give more of a synopsis than that, as I’ve spoiled the story already). With only that to go on, I was preparing myself for a slow, drawn out, sob-fest. Except what I got was some extra precise acting on an elegantly designed stage.

The cast of Soulpepper’s remount is almost the same as the original. Joseph Ziegler and Nancy Palk (who are, in fact, actually married), reprise their roles as Willy and Linda Loman with such comfort and agility, I was immediately immersed in the action on stage. While the show did take a little time to get its gears moving, once the tension started rising, it was like a thick cloud over the audience. From rapid-fire exchanges between the brothers Biff and Happy (played to perfection by Ari Cohen and newcomer to the cast Mike Ross), to the heavy-duty (emotionally, of course) flashbacks of Willy and his brother Ben (a slightly jolly-in-the-wrong-way, Santa-esque William Webster), the dull moments were very few and far between.

The set lent itself really well to framing the high quality of the acting, with all the action taking place in a split level set meant to act as the Loman family’s small Brooklyn home. The bottom level acted as the small eat-in kitchen and the top two-tiered level acted as both Linda and Willys’ and the brothers’ bedrooms. A large screen dropped down slightly to the right and behind the main set, upon which was projected a generic apartment façade when the scene was taking place in present day, and a beautiful green treescape during the flashbacks. The lighting also reflected the back and forth movement of time, with a harsher, whiter light for the present and a warmer, golden light for the past.

There was one moment that stuck out as a great No-No in the entire two hour and fifty-five minute show. I say ‘great’ because it happens in the pivotal scene at the end when Willy finds clarity in a very important decision about his life. The sound up until then had been lovely and well-designed, except during the car crash there was a loud horn blast that sounded more like the music that dictates when to gasp in any stereotypical melodrama. Both Elana and I were completely enthralled with the characters and the action and the horrifying realization of what he was going to do, despite how terrible we thought Willy Loman was (again, phenomenal work by Ziegler). But then we were completely ripped out of it by that strange sound effect choice. It really was jarring.

There isn’t much to say about this show that isn’t a thinly veiled form of praise, I really enjoyed it. I would even venture to say that, even if you have been beaten over the head with Arthur Miller or Death of a Salesman in the past, you would greatly enjoy this production as well. I know my friend Elana did.

Details

Death Of A Salesman runs until October 6th 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