Philip Roth was once asked how you write a great Jewish novel. You write a great novel, he responded, then make the characters Jewish. Such seems to be the thinking behind EgoPo Classic Theater‘s impassioned production of DEATH OF A SALESMAN.
Director Lane Savadove has recast the tragic Loman clan of Arthur Miller’s classic as a Jewish family. The transposition makes sense. Although the Lomans are of unspecified background, Miller himself was Jewish. The theme of EgoPo’s 2014/15 season is “American Giants”. Considered alongside a recent all-black staging of the play in Philadelphia, this positioning demonstrates how encompassing is Miller’s giant of American theater. The yearnings and struggles in DEATH OF A SALESMAN align well with the Jewish experience in America, as with the African American experience.
So this production begins with title character Willy Loman’s shiva (a Jewish wake, sort of), and plays as a series of flashbacks leading to his funeral, with rites given by a rabbi. Within this frame, Savadove barely explores his decision to make the Lomans Jewish, with only some accent shifts to mark Mary Lee Bednarek as the stereotypical Jewish mother. Instead, his focus is on the spiraling psychological breakdown that precipitates Willy’s downfall.
Ed Swidey is probably two decades younger than most Willys, but Savadove’s decision to work with a cast of young actors proves inspired. Miller plays with time in his script, switching decades seemlessly, and Swidey brings an energy and passion to the role which could carry any production. Here, Swidey’s presence is matched by Sean Lally as the wayward son Biff. In Lally’s hands, Biff’s arc from cocky high school athlete to tortured drifter to a clear-sighted son and brother provides a parallel narrative thrust.
Among the supporting cast, Kevin Chick provides comic relief as his brother Hap. Steven Wright and Derrick Millard bring grounded personality to the more well-adjusted neighbors Charley and Bernard. And even in this powerfully acted and tautly directed staging, Russ Widdall manages to steal most every scene he enters as Willy’s brother Ben, his boss Howard, and accommodating waiter Stanley.
More than exploring the play’s Jewish roots, Savadove has mined its psychological roots. Portentous sound design by Robert Carlton and lighting by Matt Sharp sharpen the focus on Willy’s descent to madness. The audience is transported on his ride of delusions and regret. DEATH OF A SALESMAN is often seen as a cultural comment on the American Dream, in EgoPo’s production it is a moving look at a man, his son, and their personal tragedies. [Latvian Society, 531 N. 7th Street] October 24-November 9, 2014; egopo.org.