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DISTORTED REALITY: Arthur Miller’s classic ‘Death of a Salesman’ opens at Thalian this week

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“‘Death of a Salesman’ is really about a man abused not just by an economic system, but by his own belief in that system, even as he is being materially destroyed by it.”

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Angry. Obsessive. Contradictory. They’re all characteristics of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” The 1949 award-winning play covers the struggles of a man fixated on success, bogged down by the intricacies of family dynamics, particularly his relationship with his sons, and possibly facing dementia in his twilight years. 

deathofsalesmanThalian Association will be opening “Death of a Salesman” this Thursday at Thalian Hall. Artistic director David Loudermilk chose the classic as a parallel to today’s “American Dream.” “This piece evolves without ever changing, and it makes what makes good theatre,” he says. With the help of director Charles Grimes—also a professor from the UNCW Deptartment of Theatre—the cast includes Elaine Nalee, Wilson Meredith and Josh Bailey as Loman’s family. Fifty-four year-old Jim Bowling takes on Willy. “Even though the family on the page is dysfunctional, the family that is the cast is supportive and creative,” Bowling says. “After this show, I would love to do a comedy.”

The morose tone of the show covers Loman’s final day alive, as his mind processes his life, values and interactions. Snippets of his past intertwine with present day and play out successes and particularly all failures that overwhelm him. “Finding moments where the audience will understand and care for him [are important,]” Bowling says. “If he is angry and upset the entire show, the audience will not engage and want to stay. If you think about it, the nastiest person you may know has moments where they are kind, funny and nice to be around. We are all flawed; it’s just we get to watch Willy fall apart and show all of his in one night of theatre.”

encore interviewed director Charles Grimes about the text and subtext of the show.

encore (e): When did you first read this Arthur Miller classic, and how did it impact you? What were your initial reactions and  have they since evolved?

Charles Grimes: When I first read the play, in high school, I had three reactions.  First, I was excited that a play at the heart of the American canon had such a negative view of business and economics—something about its message of the unfairness of capitalism excited me, let me know there were people in the world, like Miller, concerned with social justice, that there was a range of opinions out there about our social world. Second, Willy seemed like a really good guy who was purely a victim.  Thirdly, like a lot of American men, I can read into Willy and Biff’s relationship something of my own to my father.  There’s a load of unexpressed father-son feelings that Miller taps into.  I’m still excited by the play’s sense of social justice, but I’ve come to see that Willy has significant faults in the ways he behaves toward his wife and sons.  Lately I’ve come also to appreciate the complex status of Linda, Willy’s wife, as an actor in the drama of this family. 

e: Is this your first time directing “Death of a Salesman”? What fascinates you most about this production?

CG: I’ve never directed this particular play, although I have studied and taught it often. What fascinates me most about this production is the chance to see how “Death of a Salesman” resonates in our own time of economic dislocation.  Miller was very pleased when one of his first audience members called the play “a bomb under our system of capitalism.” Capitalism never reciprocates the affection Willy Loman gives it.

What we’ve seen recently is capitalism just doesn’t need everybody in our country. It can apparently do without a lot of us—as many faced with joblessness and straitened circumstances are discovering. When I am in rehearsal with my actors, I am fascinated by invention and energy they bring to the play—their ability to take lines from a book and make them sound like real life.

e: How have you approached the show’s various themes to pull out the most authenticity? Anything particular about the text/settings you’ve focused on?

CG: For me this has been an opportunity to read the play and see exactly what is really there. The critical tradition on the play, which I have presented to many a classroom of undergraduates, tends to distort the emotional focus of the play in performance. It’s really about a man abused not just by an economic system, but by his own belief in that system, even as he is being materially destroyed by it. Willy believes capitalism will fall if he doesn’t keep spouting its clichés. Anyone who is honest about Willy knows he can be a real jerk. That doesn’t mean we can’t empathize with him, but it complicates matters—it renders unqualified sympathy impossible.

e: What do you think an actor must have to pull off the quintessential Willy? How is Jim Bowling doing this?

CG: Bowling, a relative newcomer to the Wilmington theatre scene, is playing Willy. It’s the Hamlet of American theatre—the actor playing Willy has to have an amazing ability to suffer, to dive into unpleasant experiences, and to inhabit a mind in breakdown. We have talked a lot about the jagged extremes of Willy’s behavior. He lashes out to relieve himself of both guilt and suffering. Sometimes Jim can effortlessly pull deeply weird psychic moments out of himself.

e: What scene in “Death of a Salesman” stands out most to you?

CG: We’re doing something different with the Requiem, which takes place after Willy’s funeral. It’s always seemed a scene that privileges emotion, but also one that wants to make us think a variety of thoughts about Willy’s life. It’s an effort by Miller to step out of realism. We are stripping the scene of a certain amount of emotionalism in order to open up the themes and meanings of the play to the audience.

e: Is there any subtext in the show you think should resonate with audiences?

CG: We’re hearing a lot about winners and losers these days. Winners get to brag about themselves, to buy elections, too, while the losers simply must vanish, it seems.  Pay increases for those at the top of the economic ladder while it decreases for those at the bottom. Ninety-five percent of the economic gains posted after the Great Recession have gone to the top 1 percent of our population. Willy is a loser in these terms. Even so, as Linda says, he is a human being, and his suffering demands some kind of notice and some kind of sympathy.

e: Tell me about tech stuff and how it’s gelling to complete the world you’re creating?

CG: Terry Collins is designing and creating a set with skewed perspective lines. It looks almost like German expressionism. It all looks extreme and off-center and reflects the state of Willy’s mind. Dallas Lafon is doing lights, which will shift the mood of the show constantly. Rhe’a Roland is costuming the show, and her idea is that the past is more vivid in Willy’s mind than the present. With all these design elements put together, the show will give us a real world significantly distorted and warped, as we see that world through Willy’s eyes.

Death of a Salesman
Feb. 4-7, 11-14; 7:30 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m.
Tickets: $15-$30 •
Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St.

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Encore Magazine regularly covers topics pertaining to news, arts, entertainment, food, and city life in Wilmington. It also maintains schedules and listings of local events like concerts, festivals, live performance art and think-tank events. Encore Magazine is an entity of H&P Media, which also powers Wilmington’s local ticketing platform, Print and online editions are updated every Wednesday.

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