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Anguish at the heart of ‘Salesman’ has never lost its grip

Ken Baltin (right) in rehearsal and (below with Paula Plum) in “Death of a Salesman.”

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Ken Baltin (right) in “Death of a Salesman.”

It’s a weekend afternoon rehearsal for Lyric Stage Company’s production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,’’ and Paula Plum’s eye has just fallen upon an object both strange and familiar.

“We have a rotary phone!’’ Plum cries, a blend of delight and wistfulness in her voice. And indeed there it is, black and gleaming on a table across the room where Plum is working on a scene with director Spiro Veloudos and costar Ken Baltin. Veloudos strides over to the telephone, jokingly pushes its nonexistent buttons, and pretends to be baffled that it doesn’t work.

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The phone is an artifact of another era, a reminder that “Death of a Salesman’’ premiered on Broadway in 1949. Yet though it is possibly the best known of all American dramas and certainly one of the greatest, there is much about “Salesman’’ that feels both contemporary and timeless, familiar and strange. No matter how many times you’ve seen it, Miller’s masterwork remains unsettling, with its portrait of doomed, delusional Willy Loman, a battered Everyman forever chasing an American Dream that betrays him at every turn.

That’s a not-unfamiliar feeling today, at a time when post-recession economic anxiety retains a firm grip on the national psyche and plenty of employees have, like Willy, had the devastating experience of being ruthlessly discarded by corporations after decades of loyal service. “Why is this relevant in 2014? Look around,’’ Veloudos says simply.

But in a pre-rehearsal interview, joined by Baltin and Plum — who play Willy and his wife, Linda, in the Lyric Stage production that begins performances Feb. 14 — the director makes clear that what really attracts him to “Salesman’’ are the complex family dynamics Miller puts at center stage.

Few families are more tormented than the Lomans. There’s a primal ache to the clashes between Willy and his older son, Biff, including a devastating flashback scene in a Boston hotel room. Part of what eats at Willy is the anguish of a man who feels he has failed his family, as a husband, father, and provider. To capture that anguish and Willy’s equally fierce bouts of denial, “Salesman’’ flows between present and past, mirroring the jumbled workings — alternately rosy-hued and guilt-stricken — of Willy’s mind. “His life is remembering him,’’ Baltin says cryptically.

One of the classic roles of the American theater, Willy Loman has been portrayed on Broadway by Lee J. Cobb (who originated the role), George C. Scott, Dustin Hoffman (with John Malkovich as Biff), Brian Dennehy, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, in 2012. As Baltin prepares to tackle the character, he says he sees Willy as a man who is “fighting for his dignity against impossible forces: the forces of aging, the forces of the business world.’’ In addition, the actor says, “he’s trapped by all the mistakes he’s made. He’s made all the wrong decisions, and now he’s stuck with looking back and asking: ‘What happened?’’’

Linda Loman, of course, has a heavy burden of her own. Surrounded by three deeply flawed men — Willy, Biff, and her other son, the feckless Happy — Linda is battling, quite literally, to keep her husband alive. “She knows everything from the beginning of the play,’’ Plum observes. “She knows he’s been trying to kill himself. She’s so supportive and protective of Willy. . . . It almost feels as if Willy is her child.’’ Plum is struck, too, by Linda’s terrible isolation: “She has no friends, she has no job, her kids are bums who can’t be relied upon. I don’t think there’s much life left [for her] at the end of the play.’’

All that emotional turbulence can capsize a production if a director is not careful. Veloudos is keenly aware of that risk. “This could become very melodramatic,’’ he says. “My job is to make sure that we stay on an active track.’’

Toward that end, Veloudos makes frequent suggestions and adjustments regarding timing, tone, and blocking during the rehearsal in a blue-floored room at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Calderwood Pavilion. In one scene, Willy is pouring out his emotions to Linda about how lonely he gets on the road, a conversation punctuated by the laughter of a woman from the salesman’s past (portrayed by Eve Passeltiner). After they run through the scene a couple of times, Veloudos tells Baltin that Willy should step away from Linda midway through his remarks.

“I love the fact that you want to stay with [Linda], but you’ve heard [the other woman’s] laughter, and that’s what starts to bring you downstage,’’ says Veloudos. Asks Baltin: “So I’m fuzzing the line between the two of them?’’ Replies Veloudos: “Exactly.’’ A couple of minutes later, he halts the scene again to tell Baltin and Passeltiner that their exchanges during the flashback should have a markedly different rhythm than Willy’s conversation with Linda. “This has the great possibility of being over-indulgent, and I want to avoid that,’’ says Veloudos. “I want to pick up the pace.’’

Even as he shapes individual scenes, the director is receptive to suggestions from his cast. On this day it includes, in addition to Baltin and Plum and Passeltiner, Kelby T. Akin, who plays Biff; Joseph Marrella, who plays Happy; and Victor L. Shopov, who portrays Bernard, a neighbor and schoolmate of Biff and Happy. Later, they are joined by Larry Coen, who portrays Bernard’s father, Charley, and Will McGarrahan, who plays Willy’s larger-than-life brother Ben.

Though Baltin and Plum have played just about every imaginable role during their careers, neither of these highly respected veterans has ever appeared in “Death of a Salesman.’’ But its impact has registered forcefully on them as members of the audience.

In fact, confesses Baltin, “Every time I’ve seen the show, I’ve cried my eyes out.’’

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.
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