Ensemble's 'Death of a Salesman' is riveting theater

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS -- Attention must be paid, accolades must be heaped upon and applause must be showered on a splendid Ensemble Theatre cast deftly performing "Death of a Salesman," Arthur Miller's expertly-structured, Pulitzer-Prize winning tragedy of a common man whose value in the work world is running out.

The production runs through Oct. 11 in this, the centennial year of Miller (Oct. 17, 1915-Feb. 10, 2005) a strong advocate for ordinary folks in his works.

The immediacy of Ensemble's production, which takes place on an intimate thrust stage, makes it particularly powerful.

For a seemingly simple, insignificant man, Willy Loman (it's no accident Loman is pronounced like Low-Man) is quite a complex character.

Greg White vividly and seemingly effortlessly captures all the traveling salesman's traits and eccentricities, positive and negative.

White has obviously internalized the role to such an extent that his face convincingly registers, at appropriate times, genuine, powerful expressions of bewilderment, love, anger, helplessness, exhaustion, vulnerability, tenacity and smallness.

It's virtually impossible for Loman, an "everyman" with a view of the American dream that brings about his downfall, not to remind you of someone you know.

You might see, through him, an acquaintance who's aging, slowing down but must keep working long and hard to pay the bills.

Loman might conjure an elderly loved one stricken with dementia who talks as though she's still 40 years younger and thinks you're a relative who's passed away years ago. Or possibly, the traveling salesman might also remind you of an aging father, who thinks he's a failure and must live vicariously through his children to experience joy. Such a person's life might flash before them on his deathbed.

Loman, also on his "deathbed" so to speak, experiences flashbacks as he tries to pinpoint the moment his life went wrong in his pursuit of the American Dream.

For those new to the play, it's an engrossing mystery as the question arises: What happened to sour the relationship between Willy and his son Biff? Through an uncanny weaving between past and present, Miller slowly but surely weaves in exposition and the humiliating answer.

White's portrayal is top-notch, blessed with nuance and spontaneity. You'll feel exhausted just watching the weariness he conveys as he slowly walks back into his house, shaking his head after making it halfway on a road sales trip before exhaustion overtakes him.

Shocks of recognition will jolt you as White's tired body lovingly and gently leans on his wife, Linda, and as she gently comforts him. Willy and Linda Lowman (Mary Alice Beck) display great chemistry, convincing you they're a long, loving couple. Watch as she gently massages, he his shoulders, her face and voice betraying compassion, after Willy returns from the aforementioned aborted sales road trip.

White's Lowman's "sees" and "lives" in his past with as much vividness as you'll see people in your life through the character.

The actor utilizes pauses and gestures to great effect and speaks his lines deliberately and thoughtfully. Nothing seems forced, whether he's lashing out at another character, pleading with his boss to be allowed to work without traveling or his lips curling in grit as he vows to fight for his job and family. Giving up is not an option for Wily Loman.

Lowman might be insignificant to some, but hardly to his loving wife, Linda.

As embodied by Beck, we get a multifaceted Linda; tender, sweet, caring and understanding during scenes in which her husband suffers, and angry, even hateful toward her sons when she senses mistreatment toward Willy. Linda suffers with her husband and such an expression is etched into her face.

Keith E. Stevens turns in a powerful, gasp-inducing performance as Biff, one of the two Lowman adult sons who's a lost soul and wanderer. returning home every once in a while in between odd jobs.

You'll cringe when Stevens' insecure, restless, pathetic Biff lashes out at is father with such convincing menace you feel a fight is imminent.

The other son, Hap is convincingly portrayed by Johnathon L. Jackson as a laid back, carefree charmer and womanizer who also plays the role of peacemaker between his brother and his father.

The action, which is set in Brooklyn, oscillates between 1928 and the late 40s, between reality and scenes from the past that take place in Loman's head.

During imaginary and real scenes, Lowman interacts with characters such as his dead brother Ben, who struck it rich early (a confident, arrogant Stephen Hood), an acquaintance, Charley (an affable Joseph Milan, whose patience is sometimes tried by Willy's behavior), and Willy's boss, Howard Wagner, who represents the cruel, hard world of work, where loyalty's a lost value. Wagner's portrayed by a deceptively charming August Scarpelli, who reveals himself to be an uncaring, unsentimental, business-first boss.

Co-lighting desingers Ian Hinz and Steven Barton use non-realistic hues for the imaginary scenes, but could go even further in bathing the stage in a dream-like, surrealistic aura. Also, any sound meant to suggest a dream-like state was too faint.

Ron Newell's set puts the audience's imagination to work a bit, which is appropriate for a play set largely in the protagonist's head. What's not left to the imagination are tall buildings next to the small Loman home, suggesting the salesman's insignificance to others in an uncaring, capitalist, progress-driven society.

Meg Parish's costumes are character-appropriate. Especially effective are the stripped shirts worn by Biff and Hap: Biff. in particular, is ill at ease in his parents' home; it's almost like a prison with his father an unwanted, argumentative cellmate. He's also locked in his struggle to make something of himself.

Of all the characters, Willy's the most complex. He's cheats on his wife, yet he loves her to death. He calls Biff a "lazy bum," then says Biff isn't lazy. He's petty and vindictive, but can quickly turn lovable and nostalgic. Despite his flaws, and Willy has many, we love him, despite how easy it can be to dismiss him as a foolish old fart, a la Don Quixote of La Mancha.

Willy's comical in his inconsistencies and insistence on things, despite evidence to the contrary. But perhaps, like "The Glass Menagerie's" Amanda Wingfield, it's his resilience that wins us over. He'll do anything for his family--even literally die for them.

His funeral seems uneventful, with hardly anyone attending, yet you can't shake the notion that it was an especially meaningful tribute, worthy of an honorable man--and father.

He died for his family, who's been trying to make ends meet, knowing the insurance money he left behind would help them in their quest for the American Dream.

IF YOU GO
WHAT: "Death of a Salesman"
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays as well as 2 p.m. Sunday, through Oct. 11.
WHERE: Coventry Building, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights.
For ticket information, call 216-321-2930 or visit http://www.ensembletheatrecle.org