Everyman Theatre is ending their 25th anniversary season in a glorious and ambitious fashion. It honors not only Modern American Theatre but also the tradition of rotating repertory. The idea is to mount two iconic plays, sometimes performed on the same day, while the creative team is charged with bringing to life two vastly different environments on the same stage. If any company is up to the task, it is Everyman. Founding Artistic Director Vincent M. Lancist and Derek Goldman give their chosen play a unique and distinct vision with breathtaking results.
Together, Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire have reached new heights and represent a monumental theatrical accomplishment for Everyman.
It is appropriate that two titans of post World War II American Theater are represented. Vincent M. Lancist directs Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Derek Goldman, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Both plays won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and are considered the two of the finest plays of the 20th century. Both directors have served them well.
The stories are heartbreaking and also deal with many subjects, some taboo for their time. We have come a long way but these issues still very relevant today – acceptance of sexual differences, violence towards women, mental illness, dementia, ageism – and the loss of the American Dream as well as the loss of kindness and compassion.
At the core of each play are two broken people trying to holding onto their fragile dreams for survival. For one, it is his version of the American Dream and success; for the other, it is to be desired and loved.
In Death of a Salesman, looming apartment buildings of the post-war era have been built around the once bucolic New York house of Willy Loman (the astonishing Wil Love), a traveling salesman who is approaching the end of his career. The home where he raised his two boys Biff (Chris Genebach) and Happy (an excellent Danny Gavigan) with his devoted and loving wife, Linda (played with subtle dignity and strength by Deborah Hazlett) is one mortgage payment away from being paid off.
But Willy is struggling. He has been tossed aside like an old shoe at the company he helped to build. Howard, the callous son of his former boss whom he named (the incomparable Bruce Randolph Nelson, who also plays Willy’s neighbor, Charley), is more focused on his new recording machine than the desperation of a loyal employee. The machine is a symbol for the changing world that is leaving Willy behind.
Willy is now working only on commission and suffering from episodes of what may be dementia. He exists in two worlds – the present with the unrealistic dreams for the future and his sons and a past, likely more rosy in the remembering. He speaks to his older brother – Uncle Ben (Carl Schurr) to his boys – a ghost who wanders in and out of the corners of his world as he did in life. He represents Willy’s idea of success. Ben walked into the jungle at 17 and walked out at 21, a diamond tycoon and rich. Willy believes that being well-liked is the secret to success.
The sons are home for a visit. Once a promising football star, Biff is a wanderer, satisfied with odd jobs and working outdoors in the West. To Willy, he has no direction or ambition. His younger brother, ironically named Happy, has always been in Biff’s shadow. Though Happy is following in his father’s footsteps, exaggerating his position and importance, he has become a superficial womanizer.
Willy is not a completely loveable character – he is flawed and thus, very human and real. He angers easily, he is stubborn and often dismisses his long-suffering wife. His frustration with his eldest son causes epic battles between the two. But they share a secret from the past – his father’s on-the-road dalliance with another woman (the always wonderful Dawn Ursula) which may have impacted Biff’s path in life.
Willy’s good neighbor and likely his only friend, the wise-cracking Charley (Nelson), regularly gives him money without hesitation so Willy can keep his dignity and the illusion to his wife that he is still a success. Ironically Charley’s studious and nerdy son, Bernard (a perfect Drew Kopas), who followed Biff around like a puppy dog when they were in school, embodies Willy’s ideal of success for his sons – a successful lawyer with a family.
But it is Biff on whom Willy has pinned his greatest hopes and they are constantly at odds. Chris Genebach’s tour de force performance as Biff is equal to that of Love’s Willy and it is a match made in heaven. Biff briefly buys into his father’s illusions but comes to his senses when it inevitably fails. The greatest tragedy may be that Willy gets in his own way even when a way out of his problems is given to him.
Arturo Tolentino is fantastic as the hard working and compassionate waiter, Stanley. Beth Hylton and Megan Anderson appear as minor characters but there are no small parts and they ramp it up in Streetcar.
Daniel Ettinger’s set is simple and transparent, all almost surreal, which fits perfectly with Willy’s state of mind. The lighting design by Harold F. Burgess and Chas Marsh’s sound design effectively and poignantly mirror Willy’s journey back and forth from present to past. David Burdock’s era costumes are imbued with the palette of the situation each character finds him or herself.
A Streetcar Named Desire is the perfect paring with Miller’s classic. While Salesman is stark and surreal, Streetcar is vibrant and lush. You can feel the heat. It is also the perfect balance for the cast. We get to see the actors playing the smaller roles in Salesman now take center stage. As in Salesman, the entire cast is pitch perfect, breathing full dimension into each character.
Director Goldman has ingeniously injected a chorus in the form of the magnificent singer, Kelli Blackwell, to open each scene. The songs are American standards that act as a prelude to the action about to unfold as a well as a nod to the setting – New Orleans, considered the birthplace of jazz.
A faded southern belle, Blanche DuBois (the ephemeral Beth Hylton) arrives unexpectedly at the small, shabby French Quarter apartment of her little sister, Stella (the sturdy Megan Anderson) and her husband Stanley Kowalski (an excellent Danny Gavigan).
Stanley is a volatile, Polish ex-serviceman and the polar opposite to the genteel, Old South upbringing of the two sisters. Blanche and Stanley instantly rub each other the wrong way. Stanley dislikes her condescending airs and Blanche thinks Stanley is common.
Blanche tells her sister she has taken a leave of absence from her teaching position because of nerves. She later reveals that has no money but there are far more desperate and grim truths yet to be revealed, including a serious drinking problem. Blanche was left to manage the affairs of the family home and bury the last of their family members, ultimately losing the family home, Belle Reve. Stanley feels that he and his wife may have been cheated and has deep suspicions about Blanche.
Stanley and Stella’s passion is deep and demonstrative and Stella is excited about her pregnancy. But there is also an acceptance of spousal abuse as just the way things are. We see it on a lesser level between Stanley and Stella’s upstairs neighbor and landlady, Eunice (Dawn Ursula) and her husband Steve (Bruce Randolph Nelson). During a weekly poker game, Stanley gets stinking drunk and is increasingly irritated by his friend Mitch’s (another astonishing performance by Chris Genebach) interest in Blanche. Though rough around the edges, Mitch is a tender and thoughtful man – a bachelor who lives with his elderly mother.
Stanley attacks Stella and it takes his three buddies to hold him down as Eunice takes Stella into her apartment. In a scene that has become so memorable in the film version, Stanley frantically calls for Stella and she comes to him. Blanche is shocked and there is a sense that this has happened before.
While Mitch gently courts Blanche, Stanley uncovers the sordid truth of Blanche’s recent life. This may be explained by the sad story she reveals to Mitch about her beautiful, young husband and the circumstances surrounding his death. It seems she has spent her life trying to recapture the great love of her youth –inappropriately. Stanley not only tells Mitch, but also commits an unforgivable act of cruelty when they are alone, finally pushing Blanche over the edge as she becomes completely detached from reality.
Where Salesman’s set is sparse, Ettinger’s Streetcar set is rich in detail with an iron staircase winding up to the second level apartment with the signature architecture of the Quarter – elaborate ironwork and shuttered windows and doors. There are always people on the street and wash hangs in between the apartment buildings. Light is crucial element to the story. Blanche hides from the bright daylight as she does the sad realities of her life, throwing a Chinese lantern on a bare light bulb. Lighting designer Harold F. Burgess II and sound designer Chas Marsh again create their magic. The creative team deserves high praise for their work.
Individually these two productions are brilliant in their own right. Together, Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire have reached new heights and represent a monumental theatrical accomplishment for Everyman. Go to at least one of these productions, but do yourself a favor and go to both. Baltimore is so fortunate that Lancist has created a company that has become one of the crown jewels of this city’s theater scene.
Running times: Death of a Salesman – Approximately 3 hours with one 15-minute intermission; A Streetcar Named Desire – 3.5 hours with two 15-minute intermissions.
Advisory: The plays contain mild violence and adult situations and may not be suitable for children.
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller and A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams are presented in repertory through June 12, 2016. Everyman Theatre, 315 West Fayette Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. Tickets can be purchased online, at the box office or call 410-752-2208.