“He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid.”
– Linda Loman, Death of a Salesman
When Zach Grenier wrapped up his long-running role as David Lee on “The Good Wife,” he pondered what character he’d most like to have a chance to play on stage. Grenier admits that he didn’t think he’d have a shot at Willy Loman, the titular character of Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer and Tony winning Death of a Salesman. After all, how often is that great American tragedy produced?
Meanwhile, stage director Mary B. Robinson says during our interview at Pittsburgh Public Theater, “I’ve known I’d be directing Salesman for a while. I love Pittsburgh audiences, having been here before,” says Robinson, who staged Freud’s Last Session at The Public. “I directed Miller’s All My Sons just last summer–always with Death of Salesman coming up in my head. That was very exciting.”
Surrounded by posters and memorabilia in the office of PPT artistic director Ted Pappas on a busy day at the Cultural District theater, Grenier and his director conjured their own dreams and memories.
Grenier says: “One Monday I was sitting around with my wife and no longer a regular on “The Good Wife”, doing a number episodics, looking for the next thing,” says Grenier. The couple even discussed moving from New York, perhaps to a good theater town–like Philadelphia, where he’d worked before.
He’s been thinking about it for 20 years. Grenier’s that guy who has been on stage with the likes of Frank Langella, Julie Harris, and Jane Fonda. He’s appeared in a wide repertoire of works ranging from Shakespeare to David Rabe to David Mamet. His historical characters have included Beethoven, Oliver Cromwell, and Dick Cheney. Television audiences know him for seven seasons on “The Good Wife” and movie fans will remember him in “Fight Club”, among other films.
Grenier said to his wife Lynn, “The thing is that I’m never going to play Willy Loman. I know it. I’m never going to play him. And the next morning I get a call asking if I can play Willy Loman, in Pittsburgh!” he says, sounding as surprised during as a short rehearsal break in April as he probably did in on the Martin Luther King Monday holiday in January.
When Grenier learned Robinson would be his director, the deal was sealed. He’s worked with her for Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten in the early1990s, he trusted fate, adding “I’ve heard great things about the theater.”
“Zach played James Tyrone, another mountain of a role,” says Robinson, adding that Shakespeare’s King John had first connected them a decade earlier in the 1980s.
Now Grenier plays the American Lear in Robinson’s Salesman in which Willy Loman wins and loses in his pursuit of the American Dream. The actor began his own preparation well before rehearsals began at the end of March.
“With this kind of mountain, you start climbing,” he says of Willy.
In February, after he was cast, Grenier turned 63, the same age as Willy. The realities of playing a role coveted by seasoned actors isn’t lost on him for “there is something about getting to this age. When I was younger, I thought Willy was for ‘when I’m an old guy’.”
“When I said, ‘I’ll never play Willy’, it had some weight that Monday,” Grenier observes, “because you don’t know what the future holds. When you get to a certain age, you don’t know how much longer you have. You have less time than you have had–unless they come up with something really fancy. In a way time is running out.”
Miller’s iconic drama introduced innovative leaps in time and space when it debuted in 1949. Considered on the masterpieces of 20th century American theater, Salesman foreshadowed techniques that have made theater more imaginative for both audiences and actor. Because of Salesman, productions became more nimble. At the same time realistic and abstract, Miller’s script has its lead character traveling from present day into his memories. He recreates a human journey informed by the recollected past and trepidation of the future.
Willy Loman is on a downhill journey in his career and relationships. Dreams are built from his delusions as the traveling salesman’s self-confidence erodes. His wife Linda is concerned while their sons Biff and Happy struggle with respecting their father.
Robinson and Grenier agree that Willy is a recognizable member of many families.
“My father was nothing like Willy,” says Robinson, “but many of my friends’ fathers were a lot like Willy. I was certainly around a lot of Willys growing up.”
“Miller really captured something so specific yet so universal and yet so not dated,” says the director. “Such rich characters and such real human beings–contradictions and all. The relationships are so full, fascinating and complex. And Miller set his plays all in a larger context so that these plays without being didactic about it, he cites something about this country as well. And I just find that extraordinary.”
Grenier notes his own personal connections to the Miller’s characters: “My father’s family is from the Bronx. Four boys grew up there in a very, very tough family emotionally. It happens with Neil Simon, it happens with Miller–not as much with O’Neill–but there’s an emotional language that I understand because it came from being around my uncles. I have a Manny Newman [the playwright’s uncle and inspiration for Willy] in my family.” Grenier says that was his Uncle Vin.
“There are things in the play–the kind of emotional blackmail that happens and broken dreams, like those my own father,” Grenier recalls.
“I love the fact we are doing this in a thrust space, says Robinson who is thrilled about her design team that includes scenic designer James Noone and costumer Tilly Grimes, with lighting by Dennis Parichy, and sound by Zach Moore.
Robinson recalls the story of a producer who questioned Miller’s use of flashback to share Willy’s past and present journey: “I don’t get it, these flashbacks, what are they there for?”
“They are not actual flashbacks, they are not memories,” she says. “They are Willy’s constructs. The play was originally titled ‘The Inside of His Head’. So we go inside Willy’s mind.”
So what was initially defined through theatrical effects as Willy Loman’s fantasies or memories are now accepted by audiences as an expected form and experience. She and Grenier agree the PPT set is perhaps even more minimalistic than the original yet complicated enough to accommodate both the realistic and dreamlike scenes.
Grenier says catching some news on a break he considered how now many voices are talking to us via the media. He compares Miller’s expressionistic and leading edge approach was a precursor to today’s delivery of many messages that distract, inform, and converge–much like the influences of Willie’s thoughts, dreams, emotions, and delusions.
“In a way this audience is in some ways more primed for this play,” Grenier observes. “We all do this now in so many ways. What it allows in the production is to not worry so much about that and go to the heart of the matter, the poetry of the play, the moment-to-moment. Of course, they did that then, but now I feel we are most comfortable in this form.”
Grenier considers Miller’s text “a long poem” in a form reminiscent of Shakespeare’s poetic prose.
“When you really take this play apart,” he says, “you really are reminded of Shakespeare, of how he uses the verse. It’s a Brooklyn Shakespeare that we are reciting. Grenier delights in the harmonics and the echoes of words and emotions in Miller’s script as he relishes the role of a lifetime.
“To get to do this is such a gift.”
Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman previews at Pittsburgh Public Theater beginning Thurs., April 20, with the official opening on Fri., April 28. Performances continue Tuesdays through Sundays until May 21. Curtain times vary.
Audiences have several chances to delve deeper into the play and production. Featured Salesman events include “Sips & Scripts” on Wed., May 10, which provides a pre-show reception, a talkback after the show, and a script sent in advance with ticket purchase at $45. Use promo code PITTSCRIPTS online or by phone at 412-316-8200, ext. 704.
Tickets otherwise start at $30 with discounts for groups of 10 or more. A special price of $15.75 for age 26 and younger (valid ID required) is offered with code HOTTIX online while Friday and Saturday tickets may be purchased at the O’Reilly Theater box office.
Order online at PPT.ORG or call 412-316-1600.