In the middle of the 20th Century, American theater went through a highly prolific phase that produced some of the most enduring dramatic works in the country’s history. To this day, even people who pay little attention to theater will be familiar with plays such as A Raisin in the Sun (1959), A Long Day’s Journey into Night (1942), The Glass Menagerie (1945), Who’s Afraid Virginia Wolff (1963) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955). Possibly even more embedded in the American consciousness than all of these are the Arthur Miller classics, The Crucible (1953), and Death of a Salesman, which premiered on Broadway in 1949. If you haven’t seen them performed, you’ve likely read them in high school.
The Nashville Repertory Theatre, following its successful and critically acclaimed production of the contemporary play, The Whipping Man, opens a new production of a Death of a Salesman this weekend that runs March 14–28 (previews are March 12–13) at the Andrew Johnson Theater at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. It features Chip Arnold in the iconic role of Willy Loman, the aging, failing salesman struggling with the promise and loss of the American Dream. Joining Arnold are Rona Carter, David Compton, Geoff Davin, Rebekah Durham, Matt Garner, Eric Pasto-Crosby, Patrick Waller and Derek Whittaker with production interns Emily Eytchison, Abigail Kairdolf, Lindsey Mapes, and Will Miranne.
While many of the actors will be familiar to fans of the REP, two of the actors, Durham (“Woman”) and Garner (“Happy”) will be making their main stage REP debut with the production.
“I read it when I was younger but I successfully ignored it,” jokes Durham, who Nashville theatergoers will recognize from her work with Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre, Playhouse Nashville, Tennessee Women’s Theatre Project and the Ingram New Works Lab. “It didn’t resonate with me when I was younger, but it’s interesting that we all had to read it. At that age, I think it’s easy to dismiss it. You see it as an important piece of literature but it doesn’t resonate the same way it would watching it on stage performed by really talented people, or as an adult when you’re the parent or you’re the salesman. It becomes much more so when you’re the paying your own bills.”
Garner concurs. While he admits he was probably one of the few high schoolers not assigned the play, he does remember coming across his older brother’s copy.
“I would say most people have read it, and maybe they’ve seen the Dustin Hoffman version, but I would say that plays are meant to be seen and not read,” says the actor, who holds an MFA from UNC at Chapel Hill and has played Steve in A Raisin in the Sun and Clybourne Park and Dauphin in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of Henry V.
When Garner did read it about five years ago in grad school, he “found it to be a mesmerizing and beautiful work.” When the opportunity to audition for the Nashville Rep’s production he jumped at the chance.
“A lot of those mid-century American plays by Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller and Lorraine Hansberry are all so dynamic and we think of them as these museum pieces, but they’re not,” Garner says. “They’re phenomenal mountains to climb, especially as an actor, and I think they’re incredibly meaty and rich to chew on for a theater-going audience.”
When the play premiered in 1949, it issued an indictment on the promise of the American Dream in a Post-World War II America where anything seemed possible. But the dream was a struggle, especially for the American family built upon it. What makes it a classic is that its themes never get old.
“I noticed when I was looking at all the major revivals of this play,” says Garner, “they all happened five years on either side of a recession. It was performed on Broadway just five years ago with Phillip Seymour Hoffman, right in the middle of a crisis. Every time the country has an economic crisis, we think about this play.”
Durham, who studied speech and theatre at MTSU and acted as company manager for Harvard University’s Institute On the Arts And Civic Dialogue, plays Willy’s mistress in the play, titled “Woman” by Miller.
“What I love is that Miller refers to her as a proper woman and his contemporary,” says Durham. “So I’m his age. I’m not a tart or a lady of the evening. I’m a mistress, in that I’m not married to him and he’s married to someone else, but I’m not the stereotype. I think she represents his loneliness and his need to have his ego stroked, but not by someone he doesn’t respect. What’s also interesting is that she says she picks him, so I think this is her only tryst. I don’t think this is something she does often with all the other salesmen, because she explicitly says, ‘you’re different.’ When you dig into Miller’s text, you discover that she’s a much more well-rounded woman than her role might indicate.
“Willy’s wife is not hard or mean or critical. She’s very kind to him, but there is this juxtaposition of Willy and his wife talking about bills and money he needs to make to pay for things, while Willy and his mistress talk about things like stockings and what a funny man he is. I literally laugh my way through all my scenes and I love that. “
To further establish the role and context of “Woman” as the mistress, Durham believes that Nashville Rep’s Artistic and Casting Director René Copeland has done “something extraordinary” by casting her opposite Carter as Willy’s wife. Durham and Carter are about the same size and often compete for the same roles in Nashville. They’re both about the same height and can almost literally see eye-to-eye with Arnold.
“It’s this commentary — brilliant on Rene’s part — to indicate that’s Willy’s not looking for something opposite his wife,” Durham says. “He does love what he has at home, and when he travels, it’s not as if he can have his wife. So when the opportunity arises to be with this woman he takes it.”
Garner plays Willy’s youngest son, Happy, who admires his father and is following in his footsteps.
“He’s sort of named in the Dickensian way of putting a character trait in a name,” says Garner. “If I could describe him, I would see he’s very Chekovian in that he’s working hard, but has this mask and veneer that he pushes through occasionally. What’s most interesting to chew on with him in terms of acting is that he really, really wants the attention of his father. He admires Willy and thinks his father did everything right and is trying to following him out there in the world. He wants his father to be proud of him, and he’s not getting that from Willy, so he seeks it out from his older brother Biff.”
Both Durham and Garner are thrilled to making their main stage debuts for the REP, and both are emphatic in their praise for Arnold’s performance. When asked for a short answer as to why people who’ve seen the play should see it again, both said, “Chip Arnold.”
“Chip brings a muscular performance to Willy that just needs to be seen,” adds Garner. “He’s a phenomenal actor, so if anything, see it for him.”
“You’ve never seen Chip Arnold do it, that’s for sure,” adds Durham. “With a classic piece like this, it lends the opportunity to get something new every time. So if you saw it before marriage and kids, it’s going to be a completely different piece after marriage and kids. If you saw it in the middle of your life with marriage and kids, it’s a complete different piece once you retire. Depending on your perspective in life at the moment, it’s going to be a different piece for you.”
The Nashville Repertory Theatre’s production of Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller takes place at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s (TPAC) Johnson Theater, March 14–28, 2015 with previews March 12–13. Tickets are available online and onsite at the TPAC Box Office.