THE DIRECTOR’S NOTE
The first full-length play I ever directed was Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, which I directed as a Harvard undergraduate in the early 1970’s. So now, almost half a century later, it feels like a homecoming for me to direct Death of a Salesman. I chose to do it for a number of reasons. First of all, I have taught it for years and have always loved it. Second, I find in this play a work that is as relevant today as it was in 1949 when the play was first performed. And finally, as I imagined how it could be produced on the historic Indiana Theatre stage, I realized it could be presented in such a way that supports a number of the company’s salient principles.
I took my cue for the set from Arthur Miller himself. According to his autobiography, Miller’s original idea was to place the drama on a virtually empty stage, with three platforms: just a few key props floating in blackness. There were to be no walls, not even a house, until the show’s first Broadway designer Jo Mielziner declared, with director Elia Kazan, that “the Salesman needs his house.” Miller not only agreed to that change but embraced it, including the skeletal house and backdrop of encroaching apartment buildings into the stage directions of the published play. But I became intrigued to explore Miller’s original idea because it corresponded with Theater 7’s principle of stage simplicity.
When a stage is simplified, it is vital that everything on it be aesthetically pleasing and visually impactful and to turn this idea into a tangible reality, I sought collaborators who shared my enthusiasm for a “less-is-more” approach. I had admired David Erickson as a visual artist for years and have enjoyed collaborating with David Del Colletti for decades through ISU; they were the ideal artists to realize my plan. I also had great faith in Doug Champion, who was impressive as part of the creative team for Spunk, the company’s first mainstage production. With a cast of fifteen, I wanted someone to design costumes who had a sharp eye and who knew how to be efficient with modest resources; I was overjoyed to recruit Jessica Becker, who has designed clothes for numerous Rose-Hulman and Crossroads Rep productions. Another great find was Marta Shelton for the props; when you reduce the number of onstage objects only to the ones you absolutely need, each one needs to look absolutely right and Marta filled the bill.
Another distinctive feature is our diverse cast, with my casting choices giving the Lomans African American next-door neighbors and, in Act Two, bringing Willy Loman and his sons to celebrate at a jazz club lounge where an African-American performer sings jazz favorites of that era. I did this not only to be true to the company’s first principle, diversity and inclusiveness, but for another important reason as well. The play takes place both in 1949 and in a 1935 of Willy’s memory, in Brooklyn, where my father happened to grow up during this same period. Among the many neighborhoods that my father’s family resided in, one was Bedford Stuyvesant where white Jewish families and African American families lived side by side, though, sadly, probably not with the kind of colorblind comfort and ease that our casting allows us to portray. By representing a world that ignores racism, prejudice, segregation and exclusionary attitudes, we know we are presenting an image of America that should have existed, not one that actually existed in the thirties and forties, but that is for us a determined choice.
Conceptually, I seek to bring Salesman back to another of Arthur Miller’s original intentions. Miller wrote an essay appearing in the New York Times on the eve of the play’s Broadway premiere in which he argues that tragedy is about the victory of the human spirit and is meant to uplift, not depress. Willy Loman, like other revered tragic figures, argues Miller, “is intent upon claiming his whole due as a personality” demonstrating “the indestructible will of man to achieve his humanity.” Not only can Willy himself uplift those watching the play, but so, too, can Linda and Biff, since they too reach courageous realizations by the end, realizations which can inspire. That is what brings this production in line with Theater 7’s fifth principle, that theater should offer uplifting experiences that endorse positive human values. In this play, Miller examines the American Dream, showing how it can, if we are not careful, lead people astray, lure them away from what they truly love and need. The examples Miller offers are telling and instructive; they speak of endurance, individuality and courage, of the need to invest our full humanity as we make life’s choices, and in facing – and hopefully learning from -- the consequences. I hope to show what Miller sought when writing Death of a Salesman: that tragedy and its suffering can ignoble rather than depress.