Arthur Miller wrote “Death of a Salesman” more than 60 years ago, but the themes remain terribly relevant.
The tragedy follows the last days of traveling salesman Willie Loman as he grapples with his own failure, mutual feelings of disappointment with his son and the very nature of the American Dream.
The Neuse Little Theatre’s production of the classic drama opens Friday at the Hut on Front Street in downtown Smithfield, and director Randy Jordan expects audiences to see a lot of themselves in the play’s protagonist.
“Willie Loman, he’s everywhere; he’s all of us,” Jordan said. The play is “a lot about the expectations we place on ourselves, the expectations we place on our kids, their expectations of us, and what happens when nobody lives up to those expectations.”
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Staging the play presented several challenges for the community theater group, now in its 41st season, and Jordan said he had to get creative when designing the set.
For one thing, the action often jumps back and forth between different rooms of the Loman’s Brooklyn home. For instance, Willie and Linda Loman might be having a conversation in the master bedroom while their boys, Biff and Happy, air out their problems in their bedroom. As the dialogue bounces seamlessly between rooms, the interplay among the characters weaves a single narrative.
To accomplish that, the stage at the Hut is divided into multiple rooms, with a master bedroom on the left, a kitchen on the right and a yard in the front. To allow for even more varied scenery, the center of the stage has a large platform that rotates to become different venues. In contrast, Jordan said, many Neuse Little Theatre productions have box sets, which depict a single static space, such as the jury room in “12 Angry Men.”
And the difficulties didn’t stop there.
Much of the action takes place in the mind of Willie, who grows increasingly delusional and occasionally drifts into memories of fonder days. At one point, the characters step out of the home, where its 1949, and into the yard, where it’s the 1930s.
“It’s a unique twist how our set will morph with Willie’s mind,” Jordan said. “That’s not always done.”
And all of this occurs fluidly, Jordan said, as the lights never come down and the curtain never closes between acts so the crew can change the set.
Moving through space and time without a break isn’t just tough from a technical standpoint, it’s demanding on the actors too.
In portraying Willie, Mike McGee said he has to remember to walk like an older man when his character is in his 60s and then inject some bounce into his step in the scenes where he’s middle aged.
“It’s definitely one of the more exhausting parts I’ve ever had to play, just because there’s so many highs and lows of emotion and how quickly they change,” McGee said.
Some of those feelings come naturally to McGee, who is himself a salesman for IBM, but he does not personally relate to Willie’s darker sensibilities, such as anxiety and depression. Capturing those aspects of Willie requires the most acting, McGee said.
Despite the somber subject matter, the 13-member cast still manages to have a good time putting on the play.
At a rehearsal last week, actors jumped in and out of character as easily as Willie floats in and out of sanity. One moment Biff and Happy Loman would be hashing out their hopes and fears in character, and the next they would be back in reality playing with props and cracking jokes as actors Gus Allen and Jonathan King.
Jordan has a definite vision for his NLT directorial debut, one coupled with an obvious eye for detail.
Not only does he expect actors to deliver their lines correctly, but he also wants them standing in the right places, or making the right gestures, to maximize their meaning.
Several times at that rehearsal, Jordan stopped scenes where the acting was excellent but the blocking was off.
The instructions he gave – such as telling Biff to take a step toward Happy on one passionate line and a second step toward him on the next – made subsequent takes all the more engaging.
‘Death of a Salesman’
Dates: 8 p.m. April 10-11 and April 17-18; 3 p.m. April 12.
Where: The Hut, 104 S. Front St., Smithfield.
Tickets: $13 for reserved seats; $15 at the door.