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Death of a Salesman — Curio Theatre

salesman -- interiorPaul Kuhn’s touching, everyman portrayal of American theater icon Willy Loman would be enough to recommend Curio’s unceasingly perceptive and moving production of Arthur Miller’s modern classic.

Kuhn, whether in braggart mode, talking to thin air, going into Willy’s rages, or reckoning seriously with Willy’s life and the choices he made, is immediate and genuine. He is a man of many moods and expressions, each of them real and each of them forged by proceeding and surviving according to codes Willy accepted and lived by, sometimes to his glory, just as steadily to unintended, unexpected harm.

Kuhn is a transparent Willy. He doesn’t try to hide or excuse the lies, exaggerations, insecurities, infidelities, or conniving he’s done. He folds them into the hard-working decency Willy also represents to reveal a man who, as Shaw would say, doesn’t have his vices and virtues in neat little sets but has them as they come — mixed, jumbled, and random in a way that leaves us unable to define him a good or bad man and unable to judge him for being one or the other.

Take him for all in all, Kuhn’s Willy Loman is a man, pure and simple. He is not special. He is not unconventional or a groundbreaker. He is not different from most other men. He’s a hard worker who keeps his family together and forms a bond with his sons while also having affairs when on the road, turning a blind eye when those sons steal lumber and sand from a construction site, and boasts of achievement that is more fantasy, wishful rather than malicious fantasy, than fact.

Now I am going to boast. In a 1984 conversation with Arthur Miller, he said Willy was the father and husband found in most American homes, and certainly most Brooklyn homes, in the years that comprised the Great Depression, a hint at recovery, and World War II. In an extraordinary performance, Kuhn exudes Willy’s ordinariness. You can cue Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” is each of his sequences. Except is would celebrate one who doesn’t generally receive or merit celebration. Kuhn’s Willy simply is the common man. None of Willy’s lapses, even his most egregious, erase the picture Kuhn reveals of the man who makes hundreds of sale calls a year, makes a living for his family, pays his bills, does his own home repairs, contends with dodgy refrigerators and automobiles, is a responsible husband, and tries, sometimes errantly, to be a good father who instills values of excellence and success in his sons, Biff and Hap.

Kuhn gives a complete, detailed depiction of Willy, one that allows you to know and evaluate the entire character. Because of his world-weary, realistic performance, you feel more for Willy than in productions where he comes off so strong and mighty, you wonder how matters went awry for him, or mountings in which Willy’s exhaustion at age 60 becomes the main emphasis. Kuhn shows us a Willy of vigor and bravado who is also fading from drumming so long on a less and less friendly road and who is haunted by episodes of his past, episodes he can’t change but which influence, inform, or plague his life. This is a demoralized Willy whose accomplishments have not added up to the sum of their parts and who, like many facing a need to slow down but worries about how to keep home and hearth together on a fixed, reduced income when for most of his life, all he’s done is scrape by one step ahead of his bills.

Vigor and bravado? Then demoralized? Yes, that’s the point. Willy, like most people, can encompass both, You see the one clearly, and it gives insight to understand the inverse.

I began this review by saying Kuhn’s performance alone is a reason to see this “Death of a Salesman.” But Kuhn’s fine, poignant work is one crowning element among several that set Dan Hodge’s production apart from most other stagings of Miller’s play, large and star-studded or small.

“Death of a Salesman” usually focuses intently on Willy. He is the title character and the one most affected by all the various scenes Miller composes to tell his story. Willy is the lead while all others are supporting characters.

Except Hodge shows that doesn’t have to be the case. Hodge has crafted “Death of a Salesman” as a saga about a family. Linda Loman receives extended time to establish both her identity and importance. Biff and Hap become more noticeably integral, especially Biff, who rivals Willy in garnering the famous attention Miller says must be paid. The roles of the next door neighbors Charley and his son, Bernard, are heightened and take on new importance. As played by Brian McCann and Robert DaPonte, the neighbors play an active, significant part in the Lomans’ story. Hodge and McCann enhance this by going against Miller’s directions for Charlie’s character. Rather than being “slow of speech” and “laconic,” McCann’s Charley is sociable, has a sense of humor, comprehends Willy’s reality, and is concerned. This take on the character, and McCann’s portrayal, make “Salesman” richer and more textured than when Charley is a sounding board, whipping boy, or plot device.

Dan Hodge is a director who shows he doesn’t mind changing the perception or attitude towards and within a classic piece. Heck, the man rewrites and augments Shakespeare with practical abandon. By granting McCann’s Charley more due, taking time to give full dramatic weight to the scene between Willy and his boss, Howard, and focusing more closely on Biff and Hap, Hodge increases both the majesty and depth of “Death of a Salesman.”

His is a revelatory production. Not because it depicts something we haven’t seen or discovers something we haven’t gleaned, but because it presents so much broader a picture of what Miller has provided. Hodge’s is an expansive production, one that lets you see into every crevice and understand, without exception, the character of all of the Lomans. It maintains dramatic high points while accentuating scenes that often get passing, expository shrift. His care does not add significant time to the playing of “Salesman,” but it adds incalculable texture. The dynamics that affect Willy and Biff, in particular, are so well and finely drawn, for the first time, in multiple reads, dozens of productions, and acting it out myself a few times, I see how “Death of a Salesman” can be regarded as a tragedy and accept that assessment of it.

Hodge’s production illuminates small details that inform the big scenes. The disappointment that changes Biff’s life is in finer focus because of the care Hodge and Kuhn have taken to put Willy’s tight relationship with his son, and all the advice he’s given him, on stage in way take gives such insight precedence over Willy’s general decline. This is a production that explains a lot by letting more scenes breathe, foreshadow, and create intense interest in all of “Death of a Salesman” and not just Willy’s story.

Of course, everything Hodge shows is always in the play, but he emphasizes different sequences and aspects of the piece. Linda trying a new kind of cheese, Willy and Linda talking about the most advertised brand of refrigerator, and even Hap’s playboy tendencies never registered as so vivid and telling. Details that are reminders in most productions, such as Willy needing $3.38 to pay off a car repair, or Biff leaving a cadre of friends in the Loman basement while he ignored them, have meaning in Hodge’s staging. The create a wealth of perspective.

Hodge has concentrated on more ordinary parts of daily life while he and Kuhn have presented Willy as an ordinary man. The sadness in the ordinary radiates through the production. Willy becomes more tragic than pathetic. Linda grabs your heart. Biff, as acted by Aaron Kirkpatrick, becomes a full-dimensioned being instead of a major, but unexamined cog in Willy’s story. Charley and Howard also become flesh-and-blood rather than utilitarian ciphers.

I go on and on because I want to make it clear how special and unusual Curio’s production is. Without being flashy or splashy in any way. By staying on a course of depicting the universal mundane, it may be one the most important stagings of “Death of a Salesman” anyone can see.

The room Hodge gives Kirkpatrick to play Biff has a lot of do with this.

salesman -- interior 2Biff is the wastrel, the son who has football scholarships to schools as august as the University of Virginia on the line but squanders them because he refuses, no matter how much Bernard, Willy, and Linda beg him to study for a math test. Biff is the runaway who leaves Brooklyn and everything he knows to take ranching and oil rig jobs in the West to use the muscles he considers his ancestral heritage. Biff is a thief who loses one job after another for filching basketball pins, then basketballs, and then a fountain pen. He is the son who lands in jail for stealing a suit in Kansas City.

The dissolute Biff is the one we commonly see, Biff as he is when he returns to Brooklyn following his prison sentence and vows to start anew in the old Loman spirit of success and achievement.

Hodge and Kirkpatrick soften that Biff. Hodge gives attention to the scenes from Biff’s teenage years, scenes that show Biff’s confidence, self-indulgence, and belief that any calamity can be fixed, especially by Willy, but that also reveal telling moments of sensitivity and sensibility. In this production, the relationship between Biff and Willy is so strong in Biff’s youth, you see how devastating the tawdry scene Biff witnesses between Willy and an Boston buyer he’s romancing to get her business as much as to slake some loneliness, is to the troubled young man who comes to his father, out of town, to solve his dilemma.

Yes, you see Willy as a philanderer in this production. Yes, he’s unfaithful to Linda, who Gay Carducci has made you like exceedingly. But for once, you get past Willy’s dalliance, and see that’s all it is, and Biff’s attitude towards it, to feel for Biff and to understand why his reaction is so severe and life-crushing. Hodge and Kirkpatrick have turned an inconsequential Willy moment into a critically pivotal Biff moment.

The sequence in the significant incident in Biff’s young life, the one that drives him to make self-destructive decisions that don’t stop until they land him behind bars, and he rethinks his adult life.

The sensitivity Kirkpatrick gives Biff pays great dividends throughout the play. Biff is not hardboiled for all of his experiences. As played by Kirkpatrick, he is the one who cares about Linda and Willy, not Hap, who has never left New York and who takes what goes on between his parents for granted.

Kirkpatrick gives Biff finer tuned antennae. He picks up the subtleties of his parents’ lives and builds a great empathy for his mother, someone to whom he marginally related in his youth, and a clearer look at his father. For all he’s been through, and all the pejorative traits he claims to have, Kirkpatrick’s Biff is a man of character and substance. He has to defeat habit and cope with reality, and he’s doing so. There’s a humility and kindness to Kirkpatrick’s Biff. It enhances Hodge’s production and puts Biff on an equal keel with Willy for our attention and appreciation.

Just as Kirkpatrick opts for depth as Biff, Chase Byrd exudes shallowness and superficiality as Hap.

Hodge, through his vision, has reversed the usual perception of Biff as the bad son and Hap as the good one.

Byrd’s Hap is a young man just feeling his independence. He has a reliable job that gives him the cash he needs to rent his own apartment and go on the town most nights looking for, and finding, available women. Unlike Willy and Biff, Byrd’s Hap has thrived on the American dream and doesn’t want to surrender it to the middle class existence his parents have, even if he says he does.

Hap is as dishonest as every Loman (bar Linda) but has thrived in his lies and small fudges at the retail store where is an assistant merchandising manager. Hap, the baby, enjoys life is a way Willy or Biff never could. The best part of Byrd’s performance is he shows no regret for what happened to his family. He likes his life, and he isn’t going to examine it too finely, even if the wake of all that happens in the Loman house in the period Miller has us visit it.

Byrd’s satisfied, unapologetic Hap contrasts wonderfully with Kirkpatrick’s reflective, introspective Biff in this production. Hap’s fecklessness even makes the most harrowing scene in “Death of Salesman,” the one in which Hap and Biff leave Willy alone in a Manhattan restaurant on a night his boys are taking Willy to dinner, more distressing and traumatic.

By keeping so much small, subtle, and ordinary, Hodge packs major punches in “Salesman’s” big scenes. The payoff is great. Genuine epiphanies are created.

As opposed to Willy, Biff, and Hap, who live their lives pretending to pursue lofty dreams and being on top of the world, Gay Carducci’s Linda Loman is about as down-to-earth and workaday as you can get. Carducci gives you the impression Linda only leaves her Brooklyn tract house to get groceries and other necessities for her home.

Linda is as unassuming and literal as her sons and husband are fanciful and disingenuous. Carducci portrays her as a woman who takes no interest in herself, but only for Willy and the boys. She even gives Linda an unworldly naivety that works well to show a woman who may have worried but accepted all that was happening around her and that Willy and the boys were doing good by each other.

Carducci’s Linda is direct when she has something to say. She helps Hodge endow this “Salesman” with texture by the frank and natural way she discusses bills and household needs. She also backs off in tense situations. Hodge, Carducci, and Kuhn make it painfully clear how many times Willy dismisses what Linda has to say or tells her to ‘shut up’ while he is trying to interject something while he is talking to Biff or Charley. You also see how Willy harbors some resentment towards Linda because she was so adamant about him not joining his brother, Ben, is a business scheme in Alaska. Brian McCann, playing Ben, haunts Willy in significant ways in this production.

Carducci keeps Linda as plain and straightforward as the woman is, but she can also be the conscience of the production and shows great poignancy when she tells Biff about something suspicious she found in the basement and is frighteningly, and appropriately indignant, as she greets her sons as bums on the night they leave Willy abandoned on the scheduled big night in Manhattan.

Brian McCann is excellent as Charley, a neighbor who keeps his cool when Willy insults him or treats him with ingratitude. Robert DaPonte, is an insistent Bernard and does a marvelous job as the self-interested, preoccupied owner of the company for which Willy has sold for 35 years. Colleen Hughes acquits herself well as a series of secretaries, receptionists, and buyers Willy encounters on the road. She also adds fuel and worry to the restaurant scene.

Steve Hungerford’s set, which defines the Loman’s living space in a large upstage square and gives Hodge room to put scenes outside the house downstage center, is quite handy and evokes the kitchen and bedrooms of the Loman home in a realistic way. Aetna Gallagher has done a fine job with costumes, especially Linda’s house dresses and Hap’s smart suits and haberdashery. Tim Martin’s lighting nicely defines the spaces on which scenes take place and create an ominous cast in “Salesman’s” last crucial moments. Kyle Yackoski adds texture and realism with his sound designs.

“Death of a Salesman” runs through Saturday, March 5, at Curio Theatre, 4740 Baltimore Avenue (48th and Baltimore), in Philadelphia, Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Tickets are $25 and can be obtained by calling 215-525-1350 or 1-866-811-4111 or by visiting www.curiotheatre.org.

 

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