American Players Theatre gets inside ‘Death of a Salesman’

Few plays scrape the nerves quite as raw as Death of a Salesman, the 1949 Pulitzer Prize winner and breakthrough work for American dramatist Arthur Miller. When American Players Theatre mounts its own version next month, director Kenneth Albers plans to live up to the intent of the drama its author originally wanted to call The Inside of His Head — giving audiences a work presented squarely from the point of view of its protagonist, Willy Loman.

Brian Mani will play Willy Loman in APT's production of 'Death of a Salesman.'
Brian Mani will play Willy Loman in APT’s production of ‘Death of a Salesman.’

There are many plays APT could have presented that seem as singularly focused on one character’s perspective, Albers says, but he likes Salesman‘s focus on remembering the past. “In Willy Loman’s case, it’s all about memory and memory’s capacity for (simultaneous) assault and defense.”

Willy, the salesman of the title, is at age 63 a washed up has-been — or perhaps never-was — who has lost what it takes “to be a man out there in the blue, riding on a smile and shoeshine.” His wife merely tolerates him, his sons laugh at him, his employers dismiss him, and he’s haunted by ghosts from his memory that eventually overtake his reality.

“Memory is capable of both protecting an individual from the demons of the past and confronting him with those demons as reality quickly shifts from the present to the past, as it does in Salesman,” Albers says. “For me, Mr. Miller’s structure perfectly captures what he has called ‘the web of forgetting.’”

The very prolific Miller already had 10 plays under his belt when he wrote Death of a Salesman, and the play arrived on Broadway to both critical and public acclaim. The production won not only a Pulitzer and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, it also racked up five Tony Awards, including best play and top honors for author Miller and director Elia Kazan.

Arthur Kennedy also won a Tony for his portrayal of Willy Loman in the inaugural production. Death of a Salesman has since had four Broadway revivals, and won Tonys for best revival three out of those four.

Albers himself has played Willy Loman three times during his career, including a 1992 Milwaukee Rep production that was attended by Brian Mani, the APT actor who will take on the role this season. To say Albers’ performance impressed Mani is understating its impact.

“He was one hell of a Willy Loman,” says Mani, an APT veteran who will be appearing in his very first Miller play. “He wowed me.”

As an arrogant, ignorant and almost abusive person whose mind is beginning to unravel, Willy Loman is not a particularly nice man, Mani says. However, the character is a hallmark of American theater and a role many actors pursue.

“I think what sets Willy Loman apart is that he is an Everyman with very familiar foibles,” Mani says. “He isn’t a king, he’s a small man, a tiny cog in the big wheel of the American workforce. He is a man that many would think has earned some respite toward the end of his working career, but it didn’t work out that way.”

Loman’s humanity creates an undeniable empathy, if only because the character’s familiarity strikes home with so many audience members who may know a Willy Loman, or who may be one themselves.

“As I go through the script, I realize how many things about the character remind me of my father and myself,” Mani says. “To play a king suffering such a downfall, the actor has to create a certain artifice. But Willy seems closer to me and to people who I’ve known throughout my life.”

Much of that familiarity is the result of the playwright’s skill in realistically representing things that are said, and even things that are not, throughout the play, Mani explains.

“Arthur Miller wrote in the language of the people and he had a gift for writing in the language of the day,” says Mani. “He also had great insights into his characters’ intention, things that are not said, or said and repeated. You can almost hear the lies and omissions that the characters are speaking around.”

Miller’s mastery of common language, his representation of Willy as Everyman, and his intersection of reality with fantasy — something unusual when the play was first written in 1949 — has made Death of Salesman one of the greatest plays in American theater, according to various critics and historians. Albers plans to hold his production true to the play’s post-World War II time period, while it will be Mani’s task to raise Willy above the level of mere pathos to a that of a fully realized character less heroic than he is human.

“Well, that’s the trick, isn’t it?” Mani says. “As an actor, there are times when I don’t fully know what my character is about until I hear the audiences’ reaction to him. But at other times I’ve been able to get inside the skin of a character, and that’s been the icing on the cake.”

Albers agrees, and is counting on his star to create his own version of the character, one that advances the depth and understanding of those who have worn Willy Loman’s tired, rumpled suit in the past.

“I’ve played Willy Loman three times, but this is not my Willy Loman, this is Brian’s Willy Loman,” Albers says. “My job is to be aware of what Brian brings to the process and help him fine-tune the choices he believes appropriate to the character.”

Mani smiles at the thought of the task before him: to create one of the most familiar, yet surprisingly prickly and somewhat unlovable characters in American theater.

“I am a little scared, I am very excited and I can’t wait to see how it all comes out,” Mani says.

American Players Theatre’s production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman opens June 18, with performances recurring through Sept. 16, at APT’s Up-the-Hill Theatre at 5950 Golf Course Road, Spring Green. For information and tickets dial 608-588-2361 or visit americanplayers.org. Ticket prices are $47 to $75. 

SCHEDULING A SUMMER OF THEATER

American Players Theatre continues to diversify its summer schedule, moving beyond the Bard to produce American theater classics and offer smaller, more eclectic productions, both at its outdoor Up-The-Hill Theatre and its intimate, indoors Touchstone Theater. Here’s a short list of this year’s offerings. For more information on each show, visit americanplayers.org.

UP-THE-HILL

  • Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors. Opens June 11; last production Oct. 2
  • Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman. Opens June 18; last production Sept. 16
  • Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. Opens June 25; last production Sept. 24
  • Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. Opens Aug. 6; last production Sept. 24
  • Shakespeare’s King Lear. Opens Aug. 13; last production Sept. 30

TOUCHSTONE

  • Carlyle Brown’s The African Company Presents Richard III. Opens June 11; last production Sept. 14
  • Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice. Opens June 25; last production Oct. 8
  • Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. Opens Aug. 9; last production Oct. 16
  • Stephan Massicotte’s Mary’s Wedding. Opens Oct. 30; last production Nov. 20

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