June 30, 2008

Captivating Cast Drives a Brilliant ‘Salesman’

By Colin Dabkowski

As the summer movie season prepares to enter high cotton-candy mode, Western New York theaters have come up with the perfect antidote: pure, unadulterated tragedy. And it couldn't be more welcome.

"King Lear," Shakespeare's finest tragic tale, is onstage at Shakespeare in Delaware Park. And a little farther south, a brilliant production of Lear's American stepchild, Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," began its nine-day run on Saturday at the Chautauqua Theater Company.

The Chautauqua production, starring Stuart Margolin as the tortured protagonist Willy Loman and directed by CTC co-Artistic Director Ethan McSweeny, is incredibly well conceived and executed by the company's mix of conservatory members and visiting artists. Revelatory performances from Margolin and conservatory member Zach Appelman provide the freight-train force behind the production, and they are helped by a fiercely gifted supporting cast, along with the well-oiled staging and perfect pacing for which McSweeny has become known.

For many who take on Loman, the goal is to strike perfect balance between the opposite poles of enthused hope and confused outrage. But without sacrificing a hint of pathetic indignation, Margolin's performance tends more toward the hopeful and sweet than the overtly small and contemptible. Even in the depth of his rages, Margolin evinces a buried sense of fatherly affection that always comes from somewhere recognizably good-hearted. When Margolin says that a man is not a piece of fruit, it's enough to make you foreswear oranges for the rest of your life.

As Loman's wayward son Biff, CTC conservatory member and Yale School of Drama student Zach Appelman is spellbinding. He sets the base of his performance with a monochromatic and crestfallen solemnity. When the time comes, as in the famous scene where he confronts Willy and cuts him down to size, Appelman rises so far above that baseline you think he'll crash into the rafters. It's a performance of stark contrasts, and it's often jaw-dropping.

Excellent performances are turned in as well by Amy Van Nostrand as Loman matriarch Linda, along with Keith Randolph Smith's magnanimous turn as Charley and Leigh Miller, who takes Linda's "philandering bum" description to heart as Happy.

Flitting self-realizations are the most Loman can strive for in his life, and when he has them, Margolin lets out the kind of heartbreaking whimper you can't fake. "Isn't that a remarkable thing?" he mutters when he realizes Charlie is his only friend.

For Margolin's Loman, the realizations are painfully tragic in part because they're only remarkable to him.

But for Chautauqua Theater Company, McSweeny and especially for Margolin, this all-too-brief production of Miller's masterpiece is a truly remarkable thing indeed.

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>Theater Review

"Death of a Salesman"

Review: 3 1/2 stars (out of four)

Presented by Chautauqua Theater Company through Sunday at Chautauqua Institution. For more information, call 357-6250 or visit www.ctcompany.org.

Originally published by NEWS STAFF REVIEWER.

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