BWW Interviews: A Chat with Stars and Director of Classic Theatre's DEATH OF A SALESMAN
After five and a half years of residence at the Blue Star Arts Complex, Classic Theatre of San Antonio has made a new home in the Black Box of the Woodlawn Theatre! Their debut production in the new space, Death of a Salesman, opened this past weekend and runs thru February 23rd.
The play is not just about American fathers and sons; Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman has themes that are universal: love, betrayal, expectations, hopes, and the American Dream. The story is iconic, about an everyman with aspirations for something greater, to leave a legacy that his world will remember him for, and the tragic loss of that dream at the hands of an ever changing world around him. Salesman has had a lasting impact on American literature and earned not only the Pulitzer Prize for Drama but the Tony Award for Best Play in 1949. Since then it has been an educational staple, taught in English and Drama Departments in high schools, colleges and universities throughout the country since its mass publication in the 1950s.
BroadwayWorld recently had a chance to connect with Allan S. Ross and Terri Pena Ross, who star as Willy and Linda Loman, respectively, as well as the production's director, Jim Mammarella. Here's what they have to say about the production...
BWW: How did the decision to do Death of a Salesman come about?
TERRI PENA ROSS: Death of a Salesman is considered by many as the "Great American Tragedy." It consistently is in the top three of the best plays of all times. At Classic Theatre we always try to do significant plays with great literary quality.
JIM MAMMARELLA: The mission of Classic Theatre is to "reinvigorate and create new audiences for theatre by presenting professional productions of popular classics and forgotten masterpieces for residents of and visitors to San Antonio." I am a guest director at Classic, but a quick look at their first five seasons will show that they have chosen recognized classics and in some rare cases "soon to be classics." Death of a Salesman has been consistently recognized as one of, if not the greatest, American play.
BWW: Death of a Salesman is such an iconic piece of American drama. How is it to approach such a familiar and celebrated play?
JIM MAMMARELLA: I approached this play as I do all plays; with a great deal of research. I read critical analyses, reviews, and studied past productions (Dustin Hoffman, Lee J. Cobb, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, to name a few) and productions and the visions of other directors like Elia Kazan (the original director with Lee J. Cobb) and even productions in other countries like the Chinese and Japanese productions. The background preparation is a daunting task. Knowledgeable theatre audiences have high expectations that Miller's brilliant work will not be taken out of context or "modernized." Even though this play takes place in 1949 the themes of this play still ring true today.
ALLAN S. ROSS: It boiled down to a family's story. The flow and ebb of success and failures, misunderstandings and hurts. But that constant commitment to each other, the tie of love that binds them.
BWW: Why do you think the play's been so well received and well respected over the years?
ALLAN S. ROSS: I think its insight into an ordinary, everyday working man. The struggle to be a success in his own eyes, the success for his sons, to be someone is this world of so many.
JIM MAMMARELLA: As I stated above ,the theme that we pass along to our children the idea of the "American Dream;" that our children will live better lives than ours because we gave them the chance to do so. For the average Willy Loman this is our legacy and life's accomplishment. The fact that Willy ruined his son's opportunity to have a successful life is the stuff that makes great tragedy. Miller was fascinated with Greek tragedy and his other plays like View From the Bridge and All My Sons reflects that a man (or woman) does not have to be of royal linage to be a classic tragic figure. Miller projects his characters and stories into our lives and allows us to see the possibility that the choices of the common man can lead to disaster.
BWW: Do you think the play's reputation is a benefit or a hindrance to new productions of it?
TERRI PENA ROSS: The reputation sets a high degree of expectation but that also creates greater audience interest in the piece. The quality of the work stands the test of time and is always a satisfying experience. The high expectations are net.
JIM MAMMARELLA: There is pressure to live up to the expectations for this play; the audiences', the actors, and even your own. Almost every new Broadway revival of this play has won critical acclaim and Tony Awards. The greatest actors of their generation have played Willy and it is considered one of the most challenging roles for a lead actor. More than Willy you must have equally strong actors as Linda, Biff, and Happy. In fact Miller's play is so well crafted that the other 13 characters in this play all advance the plot and have a profound impact on Willy's path toward redemption. You cannot have a weak actor throughout the entire cast. Just look at the list of some of the "supporting" actors in past productions: John Mallkovich, Brian Dennehy (who also won a Tony for his portrayal of Willy Loman), Gene Wilder, and Charles Durning.
BWW: There are a lot of moments in the play where Willy is somewhat mean and cruel towards his wife, Linda. Is it tough to play those scenes as modern actors and with a modern audience?
JIM MAMMARELLA: We had to consider the time in the setting of this play; 1949, when society had different expectations of the roles of men and woman. However, in our exploration of the characters in this play we discovered that Linda is by far the most intelligent member of the Loman family. She is also the glue that holds the family together and her goal in life is to save Willy and his relationship with his sons. Linda has two very poignant scenes in which she is the one who gives her sons life counseling and recommendations as to how they should act as men. She, like most women of that time, knew how to manipulate and lead without the man of the house being aware that his authority was compromised. In this play, Willy is impotent and lacks the self-awareness (and morality) to be a father to his sons. It was very hard for the actor who played Willy to be so heartless to Linda, and for the actors who played Biff and Happy to be so miscygonistic. Actors must go to a very dark place to give truthful performances. All actors must recognize that there is a side to them that has the capability to be a very bad person and tap into that potential.
TERRI PENA ROSS: As Linda, I see Willy as short tempered, and unkind in some moments. But he is, in her eyes, working so hard and is truly exhausted from the effort to support them.
BWW: Willy Loman is in many ways the holy grail of roles for men. What has it been like to create him and his world?
JIM MAMMARELLA: The actor must study the role of Willy Loman and approach all the analyses that pick apart his character and motivation. That being said, the actor must realize that Willy does not have the intellectual capacity for analysis and philosophical thought. As an actor, Willy is basically a simplistic man and has very clear goals in what he wants to accomplish before he dies. As an actor you cannot edit your responses as Willy, nor can you judge him.
BWW: What is it like producing Death of a Salesman in the intimate space of Woodlawn Theatre's Black Box stage?
JIM MAMMARELLA: I loved it! I love theatre where the audience is on top of the action. This gives the actors the opportunity to suck the audience into the story and the characters. The last scene in the Loman kitchen will remind many in the audience of their own experiences in "kitchen family arguments," leading them to suspend their disbeliefs and sense of awareness.
TERRI PENA ROSS: It will be an intense experience for the audience. The closeness allows all the subtleness and of expression to be clearly seen and felt.
BWW: What has been your favorite moment of the rehearsal process for this production?
ALLAN S. ROSS: The watching. Seeing these AMAZAZING actors bring life to these all too human characters.
JIM MAMMARELLA: Before our first rehearsal I gave each actor an assignment. I asked the actor who played Willy to write a suicide note to Linda and his sons. I asked each actor, as their character, to write a letter to Willy that they placed into is casket before he was interned. The letters that the actors wrote and read that evening made that rehearsal a special experience. The actress who plays the "Woman" wrote a letter to Willy describing how she was madly in love with him and wanted to leave his family and run away with him. Her letter helped us to explain that her character was a flesh and bones person who had real feelings for Willy and suffered just as much as Linda at Willy's death. Each actor read his character's letter. Many cried at each of the letters. It gave the actors a sense of closure for the characters they would play. The residue from that rehearsal is in their performances but the audience will never know the process of getting to that point. I wish we could have an "after-show" and share those letters with the audience.
DEATH OF A SALESMAN, produced by The Classic Theatre, plays Woodlawn's Black Box Theatre at 1924 Fredricksburg Road now thru February 23rd. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $10-$25. For tickets and information, please visit www.classictheatre.org.