The archetypal traveling salesman from Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” Willy Loman, will appear on the stage of the Yale Repertory Theatre for the first time this weekend.
James Bundy DRA ’95, Dean of the School of Drama and Artistic Director of the Rep, directed Miller’s Pulitzer Prize winner, which stars three-time Emmy Award winner Charles Dutton DRA ’83. And although Miller’s play follows a middle-class white family in pre-civil rights America, the Rep’s production of “Salesman” — for the first time in three decades — will feature an all-black cast.
The 1949 play, an acclaimed American classic, is the tragedy of an ordinary man who realizes in his old age that he has wasted his life in the pursuit of an unrealistic goal — under the illusory belief that he is capable of greatness. It questions the validity of the American dream and explores the relationship between family and society in a capitalist culture.
When Bundy and Dutton first discussed the project, they had not envisioned a black cast, Dutton said. In fact, they asked Meryl Streep DRA ’75 to play the part of Linda Loman. But Streep and Dutton had scheduling conflicts, and they decided to cast Kimberly Scott DRA ’87, an black woman, for the role. Bundy then suggested making the Lomans a black family, Dutton said.
Though some scenes presuppose a white Loman family, the Rep production did not change the play to fit the cast.
“There are situations that are purely white in the play,” he said. “A black Willy Loman would be hung for hanging out at Slattery’s in Boston or get arrested for trying to defend a case at the Supreme Court, but you need suspension of disbelief in any play. You can’t cut scenes because of an ethnic situation.”
Bundy added that the fundamental questions of the play still apply when black actors are playing all the roles. The Rep production is not about race in America, he wrote.
The Rep production did not significantly change the script or setting from Miller’s play, Bundy wrote.
Sixty years after its first performance, “Death of a Salesman” still resonates for people in different cultures all over the world because its themes are timeless, Bundy wrote in an e-mail to the News. Bundy cited Miller’s original title for the play, “The Inside of His Head,” when discussing his process as a director.
“The play offers a director the opportunity to focus on the family at the center of the story, to put them in a context of other characters, the American and universal human behavior, and to explore how memory operates on a character using the language of the stage,” Bundy wrote.
Although the play has been produced hundreds of times, starring famous actors such as Dustin Hoffman, Dutton said he has never seen a production of the show. The Willy Loman he created, he said, is distinctly his own.
“This is a tragedy,” Dutton said. “You need to have the chops to go to the depths of emotional range and you have to create that depth yourself.”
The four actors in the show interviewed emphasized the universality of the themes in Miller’s play — especially in the context of recent economic and political events dealing with change, greed and the American dream. Yet Austin Durant DRA ’10, who plays Bernard, pointed out that Miller’s plays do not typically receive much attention in School of Drama classes.
“We don’t engage with this kind of stuff in classes because it’s perceived to be closer to kitchen-sink American drama than, say Ibsen, Shakespeare or the Greeks,” Durant said. “I used to think this play was big and melodramatic, but it’s actually a very human story.”
Finding the balance between emotional complexity and melodrama was taxing for the actors, Scott, who plays Linda Loman, said.
“They say this play is kitsch, that it ain’t drama, but it’s not so simple,” she said. “Miller’s language is deceptively difficult. It’s a mountain to climb — it’s K2, it’s Everest.”
Dutton agreed that performing a classic like “Death of a Salesman” is not easy.
“Critics should first try to get on stage and do a two-minute scene before they say this play is kitchen-sink drama,” he said. “This play was written in 1949 and there was a particular dramatic style of the era. Sixty years from now August Wilson will be kitchen-sink drama.”
The show runs through May 23.