Death of a dream, triumph onstage8/31/2016
Visiting its new rehearsal space, one can feel the excitement of the new season for Repertory Theater of Iowa. Formerly a factory, the single vast room has been partitioned into sections for meetings, readings and a rough set. One can feel the pleasure that players take in spreading out.
Clearly RTI has come a long way during the last decade since it was founded. John Robinson, one of the original members, recalls a time when preparations were so hasty that someone used a bottle of vodka as a prop, and one actor unknowingly slugged back a shot in mid-performance. No such surprises will lurk in the latest production, “Death of a Salesman.”
The play, itself, gets everyone excited. “It’s the great American tragedy,” says Director Brad Dell. “It shows us an everyman who, over just a couple of days, becomes convinced that he’s failed at the American Dream.”
The title character, Willy Loman, feels death looming physically. A salesman’s job depends on driving, and lately he’s been getting into accidents. But Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer winner also works up a compelling swirl of present action, flashback and even fantasy, which eventually sets Willy circling the drain in another sense. He’s out of sync with his new boss who is decades younger. His two grown sons seem in final free fall. The elder, Biff, who was a star in high school, stirs up especially bitter disappointment.
“The relationship with Biff is a real challenge,” admits Mark Gruber, who plays Loman. “Father and son have such a strange symbiosis, caught between present pain and past glory.”
Gruber describes getting into his character as “a journey” during which he’ll learn “the gyrations of a man at the end of his rope.” His director likes that. Dell points out that, despite its title, the drama depends on a lively interplay of elements. The RTI production has an open, split-level set, allowing easy transitions from person to person and between different moments in time. Quick changes like this also help generate suspense.
“There’s tremendous tension,” insists Dell. “If the play was just this poor guy dying, that would be a terribly boring two hours. But instead, Miller gives us a man — and his family — all fighting for life.”
The family, the director goes on, offers a kind of success for the salesman. “Hasn’t Willy created love in his life? And does that count for nothing? Or is financial success all that matters?”
Such questions matter as much today as when the play first hit Broadway in 1949. “Just look at the current campaign for President,” exclaims Dell. “Oh my gosh! It’s all about people like these. The whole question of who gets ahead and who falls by the wayside, it couldn’t be more pressing.”
Overheard in the Lobby: The new Stagewest season also starts this month. On Sept. 9, “Hand to God” begins, featuring Charlie Reese as both a devout Christian and his dirty-mouthed puppet. A hit Off-Broadway, the show has been hailed as “ridiculously raunchy.” ■
John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.
|“Death of a Salesman,” Repertory Theater of Iowa
Kum & Go Theater
Sept. 23 – Oct. 2