BWW Interview: LiveArts in Charlottesville Explores DEATH OF A SALESMAN, Pulitzer Prize Winning American Drama
"I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman, and you are Biff Loman!"
This line has resonated through stages across the globe for nearly 70 years, since playwright Arthur Miller penned the line for his aging, down and out traveling salesman Willy Loman in the landmark drama DEATH OF A SALESMAN.
Word has it, after the first performance at the Morosco Theatre in February, 1949, the audience sat in a stunned, prolonged silence. They had seen a new play that ripped the veneer off of the mythical "American dream." Somehow, somewhere the idea that a man - presumed breadwinner in the 1940s and before - would work to sustain his family and retire with dignity and something to show for it became ingrained. But Willy Loman, who claimed to be "vital in New England" to his unnamed company, slipped up. He lost his gift of gab and his ability to close deals. Willy, as the noose tightens at work, also loses his grip on family and, most tragically, himself.
Arthur Miller, stripping away Willy's illusions, gave the world a character, and indeed a play, that has gained nearly universal acclaim, and has impacted audiences from the United States to Red China and in theatres in between.
Charlottesville-based LiveArts, one of central Virginia's premiere volunteer theatre companies, is taking on DEATH OF A SALESMAN, placing it in their intimate Gibson Theatre space to once again throw a spotlight on Willy's tattered American dream, running through June 4, 2017.
William Rough directs the production, a true labor of love, he said. "I first encountered this play in the late 1960s. It was how self delusion is portrayed by Miller that drew me to the play."
The experience with his own father also informed his connection with the play. Unlike Biff and Happy, Loman's sons in DEATH OF A SALESMAN, "I was an only child. My father could not communicate with me when he was alive. It was not until after his death, I found out many details and revelations about his life."
A veteran actor and director, Rough has continued his relationship with the play for many years. "I've seen all the New York productions since, including the most recent with Philip Seymour Hoffman," a limited run in 2012. "His performance - in the final moments, I sat there stunned and in tears, not just out of sadness but of recognition," Rough added, thinking about his own age, now in his mid-seventies.
"When I was younger, I was drawn to the role of Biff," Willy's older, troubled son. "But I never had chance to play the role. Now, in a way, as the director, I get to play all the roles."
His experience and strong connection to the play is echoed by his LiveArts production team members. "Bill brings a deep love of this play and a real commitment to telling its story," offered producer Kelli Shermeyer. "I think this willingness to explore, play, and listen really breathes life into the production. He doesn't seem married to some ideal version of DEATH OF A SALESMAN floating around in his head. He's happy to tell the story with the actors and technicians he has recruited. I think this is a real gift."
Shermeyer put into perspective how DEATH OF A SALESMAN can still resonate with audiences, decades after its premiere. "There are aspects of this story - the fragility of certain American ideals, the devastating fracturing of a family, and the power of lies, illusions, and memory - that I think will still really resonate with audiences."
"I'm really haunted by critic Raymond Williams' analysis of the play from years ago. In his view, Shermeyer explained, DEATH OF A SALESMAN was about the commodification of people. "Willy transitions from selling things to selling himself, and like other commodities, he's eventually discarded by the laws of the (societal or familial) economy. Willy's conformity to the values of the society that oppresses him ultimately lead to his destruction."
The director said the connection to audiences of 2017 one step further. "I think it accidentally speaks to modern audiences," Rough offered. "As a country, we're in a fix; we're divided. This play reflects this crisis of our lost sense of identity. We're trying to uncover where the hell we went wrong."
Miller's play, by Rough's estimation, is often debated as to whether it is a great American tragedy or a great American drama. "I hope that debate and the search to define the play has gone by the wayside" and people can appreciate the play itself.
No matter what you call it, according to Rough, "The play focuses on states of mind and relationships, and that is what I have focused on as a director."
There is an inherent challenge,however. "The order of the telling - it's not logical, Miller did not write it that way. Audiences really have to pay attention." If they do, Rough said, "the dividends are huge."
The rewards of DEATH OF A SALESMAN also stem from some very rich characters, from Willy to minor roles. "All are tricky roles," offered Rough. "All throughout the rehearsal process they worked very hard to find their characters."
Steve Tharp, a familiar face to audiences at LiveArts takes on Willy, and Staunton-based actress Debra Drummond is his long-suffering and patient wife Linda. Older son Biff Loman is played by Martyn Kyle, and Taylor Ballard is younger son, Happy.
Other cast members include Winston Smith (Bernard), Richard Cooper (Charley), Karl Pfefferkorn (Ben Loman, Willy's brother), Matt Yohe (Howard), Kerry Moran (Jenny), Ernest Chambers (Stanley), Megan Robles (Letta), and Christina Ball (as The Woman.)
Rough praised his production team, especially set designer Jerry King, responsible for making the director's vision of an intimate setting a reality in the Gibson. "I think this is the first time a director said make it smaller," Rough chuckled. Dispensing with walls, windows, and boundaries of any sort, Rough asked his designer to provide a series of levels with minimal gadgetry and furniture. "It works with the subliminal nature of the play, the disconnected parts of Willy's mind."
Knowing there may be patrons who are put off by the title of Miller's masterpiece drama, Rough has also worked to help find the lighter moments in the heavy script. "I deliberately set out to find the places of humor, moments of levity."
When audiences arrive to see LiveArts' take on this American classic, Shermeyer said her greatest hope is "that our audiences will find truths for themselves within the story we tell."
Summing up DEATH OF A SALESMAN at LiveArts, Rough said, "It's about family, and it's also about aging." But the play goes deeper, he added.
"I think it is about what it is to be a human. And discerning truth from what we would like to be true."
Follow Jeffrey Walker on Twitter: @jeffwalker66
DEATH OF A SALESMAN by Arthur Miller
Directed by William Rough * LiveArts, Gibson Theatre, 123 East Water Street * Charlottesville, VA 22902 www.livearts.org 434.977.4177, ext 123
PHOTO CREDIT: Kelly Van Dilla / LiveArts