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Few other American plays carry the sort of weight and reputation that Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" does. It won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play. Its numerous Broadway revivals have been hailed as well, including last year's highly acclaimed production directed by Mike Nichols, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Linda Emond and Andrew Garfield.
"This play has a huge and accomplished artistic footprint," said Robert Hupp, producing artistic director at Arkansas Repertory Theatre and the director of the show. However, he said, "You can't go into the rehearsal process looking to the past. You go into the rehearsal process looking to the future and what this group of artists is going to create."
This is the first time in The Rep's 38-year history that the organization has produced "Death of a Salesman," and only the second time to tackle a work by Miller. "You can't be intimidated by the past or what others have said about the production," Hupp said. "It's our job to breath life into this production at this time in this place."
The Rep has put together quite a team to do just that, including stage and screen actor Robert Walden, who plays the iconic role of Willy Loman; Broadway performer and acclaimed singer Carolyn Mignini as Linda Loman; Rep veteran Avery Clark as Biff Loman; and Craig Maravich as Happy Loman. All four actors sat down with the Times to discuss the play.
The story is probably familiar to most theatergoers: Traveling salesman Willy Loman is adrift in a changing economy. His life and mind are unraveling after he loses his job. His sons haven't lived up to his hopes and expectations for them. Rather than facing reality, Willy dwells on the past.
In looking back on the history of the play and its four major revivals, all of them occurred during or within a year or two of a recession. So do the prevailing economic conditions come to bear on this production?
"Of course we bring current events and we bring our lives with us whenever we come to experience a play," Hupp said. But "the particular situations of this play transcend any particular point in time, and that's what makes a play a classic is it is both timely and timeless."
It's much more about the love and struggle of a family than any sort of economic conditions, Walden said. "I think at the core, it's an unrequited love story — love of family, love of country, love of self — all of it falling short, all of it not fulfilled," he said. "And it's a cacophony of thoughts and needs and frustrations and emotions, where the unconscious and the conscious start to surface and intermingle. It's also a study of the crumbling of the human psyche under pressure. It's an extraordinary piece of work."
Clark echoed that assessment: "The more and more you work on it, the more you're like, this is a brilliant piece of writing, and it's so layered and much more difficult than I thought it would be," he said. "Your best work is always when you're challenged, and I find this incredibly challenging."
So has the rehearsal process been emotionally draining?
The question prompted laughter from the four actors. "Look into our eyes," Mignini said. "I wouldn't call it exhausting as in draining energy, though. It really produces a kind of energy," she said. "But it's a lot to go through. It's an event."
"It's a remarkable play. It really feels like a privilege to be able to work on it," Maravich said, adding that "Death of a Salesman" has been at the top of the list of plays he's wanted to work in since he first read it as a teenager. "Every character is so rich in the play. Even the character with the smallest amount of stage time has such a full life."
Despite the heartbreak and family dysfunction at the core of "Death of a Salesman," Hupp said he believes it is "an incredibly optimistic play."
"It gives us a fascinating way to think about and talk about our own families," he said. "That's why you should come see 'Death of a Salesman.' "
The Arkansas Repertory Theatre's production of "Death of a Salesman" opens Friday at 8 p.m. It runs through May 12, with performances at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $25-$40.