Review: DEATH OF A SALESMAN, in Yiddish

by Lynn on September 8, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer


At the Studio Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Arthur Miller
English surtitle translator, Daniel Kahn
Directed by Avi Hoffman
Costumes by Penelope Williams
Lighting by Dean Robert Johnston
Sound and original music by Ellen Mandel
Visual projections by David Novack
Cast: Spencer Chandler
Deb Filler
Hannah Galway
Hannah Gordon
Avi Hoffman
Daniel Kahn
Ben Rosenblatt
Mikey Samra
Adam Shapiro
Michael Gordon Shore
Mark Stein
Suzanne Toren

A heart-squeezing, gripping production of Arthur Miller’s classic about a man thwarted by his idea of the American Dream. And it’s in Yiddish.

The Story. Willy Loman is a travelling salesman who is coming to the end of his career and the end of his delusional ideas of success. He travels hundreds of miles from New York City to New England (his territory) to sell his samples to stores, only to come up empty. His long-time customers are gone. The potential news ones find him loud and uncouth. He believes that being well liked translates into success. He is supported by his always supportive wife, Linda. She is his champion, his support. She keeps the books and manages the money and pays the bills. She never complains when they can’t pay bills.

Willy has instilled this puffed-up feeling of self-importance into his two sons Biff and Hap. Biff is the older son who has wondered aimlessly through life without success or purpose. He struggled in high school but was an accomplished athlete, it seems. He and his father have always been at odds since an incident years before when Biff failed his final year in high school and Biff travelled to see his father on the road for solace. Willy is haunted by guilt at what happened on that trip. Hap is a clerk who deludes himself into thinking he’s a manager. And he’s a womanizer. In a way, he has more of his father’s traits than Biff.

The Production. Death of a Salesman (Toyt Fun A Seylsman) is part of the Ashkenaz Festival, that celebrates Yiddish and Jewish culture. Director Avi Hoffman has created a spare production. A round wood table and four chairs comprise the set. Various projections (David Novack) suggest locations and images. For example, at the beginning there is a sound of a car driving up, headlights beaming at us and the car door opening and closing. Willy (Avi Hoffman) stands stage left, wearing a brown suit and loosened tie, carrying a heavy suitcase weighing him down. He’s exhausted. Hoffman wipes his face to relieve his weariness or perspiration. Both images work—he’s tired and hot. (Avi Hoffman played Willy Loman in Yiddish recently Off Broadway. Here he does double-duty as both star and director—both done beautifully).

Instead of having scenes in Biff and Haps bedroom, both men enter wearing pyjamas and just do the scene behind the table and chairs. When Linda and Willy have a scene the two men stand upstage with their backs to the audience, ‘invisible.”

As a director, Avi Hoffman clearly conveys Willy’s isolation. Willy often moves away from the other characters, to stand alone, either stage left or right, looking out, confused, lost, concerned. Willy’s loyal, loving wife Linda crosses the distance to be close to him; put an arm around him; support him and let him know that he is not alone and she is there for him.

As Willy, Avi Hoffman gives a touching, fierce performance of a man who is ground down by the world around him. While he is usually neat, even with a loose tie, he still looks like a man bent with worry and rumpled. Hoffman shows us a man still puff-up with delusion, but knowing he’s missed his chance and perhaps gleaning he never had a chance at all. His moments of delusion are strong and heartbreaking.

As Linda, Suzanne Toren glistens. Here eyes seem watery with tears of understanding and concern; she has a sense of optimism she tries to convey to Willy but in her quiet moments we see the worry. She is sensitive to Willy’s efforts in a world that has forgotten him, which also includes his sons. She is no fool when she calls them out for what they are. And when she says that “attention must be paid,” to such a man, you believe her.

Both Daniel Kahn as Biff, the son who finally realizes who he is and his worth and Mikey Samra as Hap, the blow-hard, womanizing son, are both fine. Kahn has the more emotional part and he is splendid in it. In the scene when Biff is trying to tell Willy the truth about each other, it is so explosive with emotion you think the two men will come to blows. When Biff dissolves in his father’s arms, it’s heartbreaking. I can’t remember a better playing of this scene in all the times I’ve seen the play.

In the small part of the Woman, Deb Filler is coy, flirty and not just with Willy either and seductive in a compelling way.

At times Willy’s mind wanders back when his boys were in high school and they idolized him. He also thinks of his brother Ben who was a rich adventurer and wonders what would have happened if he (Willy) followed his brother to seek his fortune. In these flashback scenes the lighting changes to moodier illumination. When the flashback is finished the lighting snaps back to full light. It is an efficient way to differentiate the time periods.

The Yiddish surtitles are projected on a patterned backdrop in some of the best surtitles I’ve seen in a long time—they are clearly lighted and large enough to read from afar. (THANK YOU!!!).

Comment. The play has been cut but the integrity and point of the play is intact. Avi Hoffman points out in his director’s note the success of Death of a Salesman (Toyt Fund A Seylsman) around the world in many and various productions from its first production in 1949. But he offers the little known fact that Miller based the play on his uncle Manny and that Miller originally “imagined the Loman family a Jewish immigrants trying desperately to grasp the American Dream.”

Hoffman then speculates what if Willy was a Yiddish speaking immigrant from Europe with faulty English trying to fit in? What if the play was originally written in Yiddish? Here’s the thing, the play is not overt in its efforts to make the Loman family Jewish. The beauty of it is that it’s universal in its themes of trying to fit in, be liked, be successful and be true to oneself. Hoffman also notes that ‘it took Arthur Miller many years before he acknowledged the ‘Jewishness’ of his characters.’ That might be so, but what he has written is much larger and more embracing than defining the family by one ethnicity.

For the purposes of the Ashkenaz Festival producing the production in Yiddish seems a natural fit in this case. Yiddish is a language that is being forgotten, and it’s spoken in a play about a man who is being forgotten. Both together are glorious; we see the vivid beauty of Yiddish used to express one of the greatest plays of the 20th century.

Ashkenaz Festival in association with the Joseph Papp Yiddish Theatre presents:

First performance: Aug. 21, 2016.
Closes: Sept. 10, 2016.
Cast: 12; 8 men, 4 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, approx.

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1 Ruth Brown September 16, 2016 at 2:00 am

I don’t know whether you received my first comment about your review of “Death of a Salesman’ Lynn. The comment invitation was not offered then. So, briefly now, because it is so late……
I adored your review which was so specially written………….sharp observations and wonderful to read. I believe it was this play that I saw so many years ago at Stratford. I went with a friend by train and I believe it was ‘the king of kensington’, who played the lead role. felt he just had to, as I recall.
Also I do remember our shop on Queen Street East in Toronto and am sure we did have a number of salesmen drop by, who were not jewish. The story is truly universal. Thank Lynn.
Gave my copy of your review to son David just today and mailed my second copy to a non jewish ‘Death of a Salesman’ fanatic (positive!). Laments she missed the Yiddish version. Will they do it again, she asked.
Thanks, Lynn.