'Salesman' coming to SCR

He is the great sad sack of American drama, the luckless everyman, the "hard-working drummer" who has died more than a half-century of deaths.

Lee J. Cobb introduced him on Broadway. Dustin Hoffman played him memorably in the 1980s. High school English teachers across the world can likely quote large swatches of his dialogue. And as South Coast Repertory prepares to commemorate 50 years, it will look to him to kick off the season.

Willy Loman, the burnt-out, hot-tempered yet naively idealistic protagonist of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," is a role that actors have ached to play — and directors have ached to put a spin on — for decades. This month at SCR, Charlie Robinson will take the part and Marc Masterson will take the director's chair, and like a pair tackling "Hamlet," they'll have the dual challenge of honoring a classic and making it stand out from countless other attempts.

"It definitely makes you feel a little bit concerned, because you want to try to do the best you can," said Robinson, who recently appeared in SCR's "Fences" and "Jitney" and is playing Miller's character for the first time. "But what's important, I believe, is to find a way to bring what you can bring, your personal life, into Willy Loman. That's the only way to play it and make sense out of it."

What Robinson brings to the part is empathy above all. In Loman, who doggedly tries to provide for his family while urging his sons to be successful men, the actor sees more than a grain of himself.

"The reason why it works so well is because it's about family and trying to keep family together," Robinson said. "And in my situation, I'm able to bring so much to it because of the fact that I have this great family. I'm constantly, in my life, trying to put them together, make things work in my life. So I understand what that's about."

With Miller's melancholy classic, SCR will launch a season of celebration. "Salesman," which has its first preview Friday and begins its regular run Sept. 7, will precede five other plays on the Segerstrom Stage, including the seasonal staple "A Christmas Carol" and the Moliere farce "Tartuffe."

That last play, scheduled at the end of the season, marks a symbolic round trip for SCR, which produced it as its first show in 1964. For Masterson, the theater's artistic director, "Salesman" also represents a nod to the past, albeit one that fewer audience members may catch: He and Robinson are old friends and acted together in a youth theater group in Houston.

"For me, doing a play like 'Death of a Salesman' or 'King Lear,' some of the really heavy-duty classics — 'Hamlet,' plays like that — you only do them when you have the actor to do it," Masterson said. "And in this case, that was the motivating factor in deciding to do 'Death of a Salesman.'"

This year's production will mark the third time SCR has staged Miller's play. After selecting Robinson for the lead, the theater decided on a nearly all-black cast, but otherwise, the SCR version hews closely to previous versions. The story, to Masterson, works largely as a period piece, down to the 1940s dialect and set design, which means his production may bear a distinct resemblance to what audiences first saw decades ago.

When "Salesman" debuted in 1949, some critical reactions were positive enough to border on awe. The New York Times proclaimed it "so simple in style and so inevitable in theme that it scarcely seems like a thing that has been written and acted," adding that the cast and crew "all realize that for once in their lives they are participating in a rare event in the theatre."

The Los Angeles Times was equally glowing, calling Miller's work "a play that Americans can take great pride in." Within a year, "Salesman" had walked away with the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play. In 2012, the play nabbed another Tony — this one for Best Revival of a Play, with Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role and Andrew Garfield as Biff.

After studying the play over the years and even meeting and interviewing Miller, Masterson just about knows it from top to bottom. Even still, he finds bits to surprise him.

"There are things in it that I'm discovering," Masterson said. "I just discovered — well, I knew this, but yesterday, we were working this scene at the end of Act 1, where there's a confrontation and [Willy's wife] Linda is trying to moderate between Biff and Willy, and she keeps trying to interject something and Willy keeps saying, 'Would you let me talk?' and then he goes back to the conflict. And he does that, like, four or five times, maybe more, and finally Biff gets mad at him for speaking that way to his mother and confronts him over it, which shuts down the argument.

"But in the scene yesterday when we were working it, every woman in that room, every time he said that — you know, he just dismissed her — every woman in that room was like [hands braced on the seat] 'Hate it!' for behaving that way. Obviously, that's happened over a period of time for many couples."

If You Go

What: "Death of a Salesman"

Where: South Coast Repertory, Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: Previews Aug. 30 through Sept. 5; regular performances Sept 7 through 29 (check theater website for show times)

Cost: $22 and up

Information: (714) 708-5555 or http://www.scr.org

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