The Rep’s Laura Gordon, on “Death of a Salesman”
The American dream failed for Willy Loman, Arthur Miller’s tragic American Everyman and the salesman in Death of a Salesman. The Milwaukee Repertory Theater will open the show Friday, April 15.
Loman, played by virtuoso actor Lee E. Ernst, is at the center of the play but not alone in it. Miller’s 1949 work is not only about a self-deceiving man disintegrating along with his career. It is also about a family under financial, emotional and moral stress. Death of a Salesman is the quintessential kitchen-table drama.
That’s Linda Loman’s kitchen. Laura Gordon will portray the salesman’s wife and the mother of sons Biff (Reese Madigan) and Happy (Gerard Neugent). They face a particular acting challenge, as they appear as their characters in the play’s post-war present and in Willy’s daydreams, reminiscences and hallucinations.
“There are two tasks,” Gordon said, “the here and now and some idealized, earlier version of Linda in flashbacks. [In the flashbacks] Miller always has Linda enter in an apron and carrying a laundry basket, and saying things like ‘Hello, dear. How’d the Chevy run?'”
“I’ve been thinking a lot about my mother, since we’ve been working on this play,” Gordon said. “I get these snapshots of her in my mind. Maybe they’re idealized, but that doesn’t mean they’re not true. Even in the flashbacks, I still have to get inside Linda’s head. There is not a huge gap between Linda there and Linda in the here and now.”
Gordon added that the production makes such fine distinctions less daunting. The lights will change. Music, as per Miller’s instruction, will rise to define episodes that occur in Willy’s mind, as opposed to the objective reality of the play.
The play is a period piece, set in an era of homebody housewives and careers spent with one company. Willy’s life of quiet desperation is ending with a whimper. His company is letting him go after 34 years. His one-time football hero son has failed in life. Debt is closing in. He’s misplaced his faith in the power of being “well-liked.”
“The play is from another time,” Gordon said. “It’s my parents or maybe my grandparents’ generation. It has an element of nostalgia. It gives a glimpse of what lives might have been like when men were breadwinners.
“But that doesn’t take away from its relevance right now. We all come from families, we all know about fathers and sons and competitive brothers. I can relate to a wife protecting a husband wounded by life. An audience can grab hold of that. People have a way in.
“I have sympathy for the characters. I recognize their flaws. I have some of them. So do you.”
That sympathy is part of acting, maybe the greater part of it for Gordon these days. This is her first time in the role, indeed, her first time in Death of a Salesman. I asked what she’s learned about Linda that surprised her about the character.
“Earlier in my career, I tried to answer all the questions about a character and figure out all the details,” she said. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to trust my instincts more. I know who this woman is; I just have to be open that and not get in the way of it. What’s surprised me is how well I know her.”
Notes: Lee E. Ernst and Gordon have played husband and wife many times over the years. Ernst addresses that and other topics in an interesting Q&A with Rep PR director Cindy Moran; click here to read it. TCD will post a review of the show late Friday night.
Cast and Credits
Willy Loman — Lee E. Ernst; Linda Loman — Laura Gordon; Biff — Reese Madigan; Happy — Gerard Neugent; Charley — Jonathan Gillard Daly; Uncle Ben — Mark Corkins; The Woman — Deborah Staples; Miss Forsythe — LaToya Codner; Jenny — Rukhmani K. Desai; Stanley — Ryan Krause; Howard — Guy Massey; Bernard — Michael Kroeker; Stephen Lambourn (unnamed role). Also, members of the Rep’s intern ensemble.
Director — Mark Clements; scenic designer — Todd Rosenthal; costume designer — Rachel Healy; lighting designer — Jeff Nellis; sound designer — Christopher Colucci; stage manager — Amanda Weener; assistant stage manager — Briana J. Fahey; assistant director — Leda Hoffmann.
Performance and Ticket Information
Tickets are $15-$50, $15-$45 for seniors and students, and $20 for under-40. Visit the Rep’s website to order, or call the box office, 414 224-9490. The show opens at 8 p.m. Friday and runs 28 more performances through May 8, in the Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse Theater. Calendar here.