When Gordon Edelstein, the new artistic director of A Contemporary Theater, chose Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman as his Seattle directorial debut, he must have known it could be a tough sell. Staging Salesman is a bold statement, both as a director and as an initial reaction to his newly adopted town. With its booming economy, Seattle is a microcosm of the America that Miller wrote in reaction to 50 years ago. His play is a reminder that for every financial success story, there are scores of suffering Willy Lomans. And the saga of the 63-year-old salesman is a difficult play. While it may seem a standard family drama, the heightened language, the intermingling of Willy's memories and his present reality, and the weight of Miller's themes give it an almost immovable artistic weight.
Death of a Salesman
ACT, through June 21
To make sure we'd buy this set of goods, Edelstein brought Seattle favorite John Aylward back from his E.R. engagement in LA. Once he had Aylward signed on as Willy Loman, the director knew he'd have a fighting chance. Edelstein pitched the show to him as a project that needed the native Seattle actor at its center.
"I've had the chance to play Willy a couple of times in the past," Aylward said last week, "opportunities I turned down because I either felt I wasn't ready or because the timing didn't work out. Maybe I'll do it again in another 10 years, but I wanted to do it now because I wanted to have the energy for the part. I've had a little bit of physical illness in the past year that made me realize I don't know what kind of energy I might have then."
Aylward, who graduated from the first class of the University of Washington's Professional Actor's Training Program more than 25 years ago, has worked with every major theater in town, and was part of the acting companies at ACT under Greg Falls and the Empty Space under Burke Walker. He worked throughout the regional circuit in his thirties, and in his forties worked locally again with the Seattle Rep at a time when, as he puts it, "my age was finally starting to catch up with my face. I was able to get parts that were more suited to me, and I didn't have to put a lot of shoe polish in my hair."
In scope and technical difficulty, Aylward compares the Loman role to that of Lear, though he admits that the character, and the world he inhabits, are smaller than the classical mode of tragedy. "Miller's elevated the Lomans into the archetypal schlubs. They buy the biggest refrigerator because of the advertising, and they swallow all these clichés. But it's easy to do. These clichés are preached as if they're real, from church, from your parents, or whatever. We've all had a dose of 'how to succeed,' 'how to get along in the world.' We've all been sold a bill of goods, and sell one as well. You don't have to be a salesman per se to be selling."
Loman's "schlubishness" has led critics to charge that his struggle is too insignificant to support Miller's tragic aim, but Aylward disagrees. "I'm not a scholar or an academician, I'm an actor. I didn't try to make Willy tragic or significant, I just followed the givens of the text, and attempt to deliver them as faithfully and honestly as I can. But I do think it is a modern American tragedy. It's everybody's dreams that are being taken down a peg. You go through life thinking that you are the center of the universe. You have to, otherwise, what's the point? And then all of the sudden, it's shoved in your face that you're wrong. When Willy gets that knowledge, it's a tremendous fall. His gullibility, his ability to buy in, is what makes him human."
Aylward's basset-hound eyes are the dramatic focus of his performance. Even when they quicken as memories of his glory days fill the stage, there's a defeated disbelief somewhere in there that makes it clear even his fantasy world gives inadequate comfort. His performance is surprisingly internal, dominated not by rage but by a painful bewilderment as he seeks to mediate the dreams of his inner life with the disappointments of his reality.
While it's an entirely appropriate approach to the part, it does leave him isolated as an actor; the only times he clearly engages with another person for more than a few moments are his conversations with his neighbor Charley (Laurence Ballard). Since Ballard is one of the few actors in Seattle with the experience, talent, and presence to give Aylward a run for his money, these usually minor scenes become positively luminescent.
After Salesman closes, Aylward will return to LA to continue his TV and film career. "It's been two years since I've done a play, and I wouldn't have done one now if this hadn't come along and the theater hadn't been so accommodating of my schedule. I can't say what my next theatrical project will be because, to quote Willy, 'Frankly, I'm just a little tired.' I think it'll be a little while. But this is one I wanted to do proud."