It’s not unusual for Death of a Salesman to be performed by theaters large and small, but a classic of American drama such as Arthur Miller’s 1949 ode to the little guy is definitely not the typical terrain of Traveling Jewish Theatre.
Part of the idea behind artistic director Aaron Davidman’s staging is to bring to the surface a Jewish identity implicit in the play. It’s an artistic choice that is apparent in small ways, from accents and inflections to the wearing of yarmulkes at a service, and feels authentic if ultimately incidental. Downtrodden traveling salesman Willy Loman is an Everyman, and the cultural specificity of time, place, and cultural heritage helps mainly to make him seem more real, a prerequisite to the universality of the hopes and dreams and fears he embodies. What we’re struck with here is simply how rare it is that the play is done so well.
Most astonishing is the performance of TJT cofounder Corey Fischer as Willy Loman. It’s all there in his body, all the stubborn pride and insistent insecurities, his tall frame slumped and getting only more painfully hunched in on itself as the play goes on. You can hear it in his incessant, animated ramblings, whether talking to people actually in the room or those in his head. Seemingly without taking a breath, he slides from sputtering anger to swellings of garrulous pride that crumple as easily as they come. When he stoops to pick up his boss’ lighter, you can hear the air going out of not just him, but the entire room.
On opening night Fischer sometimes became hoarse to the point where the suspense of when he’d drink from the glass of water within reach became distracting. It didn’t compromise his character, but it sometimes complicated his audibility.
Willy’s moments of good cheer increasingly become more heartrending than those of overt bitterness or desperation. There’s a haunting, childlike innocence in the way he tells his neighbor, “Charley, you’re the only friend I got. Isn’t that a remarkable thing?” It hits harder than if Willy weren’t trying so hard to put the best face on it. As he shuffles off with his shoulders hunched high and his arms gesticulating, it’s hard not to get a little teary. Somehow it’s so much worse when he smiles.
Also absolutely devastating is son Biff’s big face-off against a father with whom he is always at odds. Michael Navarra gives Biff’s resentment and outsize physicality just the right amount of underlying solicitude, guilt, and longing for approval. John Sousa is a wonderfully twitchy bundle of nerves, lusts, and aspirations as younger son Happy; the brothers are all manic energy and starry-eyed adulation as boys whenever Willy’s mind drifts into the past.
Jeri Lynn Cohen has a warm, mild presence as wife Linda. Her delivery of the all-important “attention must be paid” speech is spot on, but the weight of all the struggles and disappointments of the years is missing in her performance. She’s more convincing as the young, lively Linda in flashbacks than as a long-suffering wife and mother.
On the whole, the performances are strong throughout. The solid supporting cast includes Danny Webber as Willy’s privileged pup of a boss and a likable regular-Joe waiter; Zac Jaffee as Biff’s nerdy childhood pal; Louis Parnell as next-door neighbor Charley; and Juliet Strong and Meghan Doyle as a sexy couple of chippies. Particularly striking is Julian López-Morillas’ commanding bearing as the specter of Uncle Ben, Willy’s successful older brother.
Jessica Ivry’s solo cello score is used sparely, mostly in flashbacks and at other times when Willy’s mind seems to be getting away from him. The music so nicely sets the mood that it seems almost to dictate it, from jazzy plucking to playful waltzes to mournful reverie and cacophonous agitation.
The flashbacks tend to be dreamlike and slightly grotesque, sometimes not quite slightly enough. For the most part the use of slo-mo and exaggerated performances during Willy’s reveries is effective, but it’s occasionally oversold, such as Doyle’s incessant laugh as the mysterious young woman in the past.
The less naturalistic elements are usually striking, however, and are well served by Giulio Perrone’s spare set — a kitchen table, a bed, a refrigerator — a faux-asphalt floor with a double white line painted down the center, and telephone poles standing at the set’s rear corners. The first time we see the two sons, they’re halfway up the poles, hugging them as they fret about their dad. The bed stands on end so we can see Linda’s reactions to Willy’s nocturnal wanderings, and it’s only a little distracting to watch Cohen unhook the sheet each time she lets herself in or out.
There are also six rows of audience seating onstage, to the left and right of the action, which make it tempting to see it again up close from a new angle. But whether you’re up front or in the back of the house, this production leaves little doubt that attention will be paid.