Roles of a Lifetime

In 2011, Kansas City Rep’s artistic director Eric Rosen cast veteran Kansas City actors Meryl Moores and Gary Neal Johnson in the modern stage classic August: Osage County. They didn’t play husband and wife in that production, but Rosen knew where to turn when he was casting
Death of a Salesman.

Johnson and Moores have known each other for 25 years and their friendship shows as they casually chat about taking on the iconic roles of Willy and Linda Loman. In between shared jokes and finishing each other’s sentences the friends talked about how they relate to their characters and the larger themes of the show in general.

Johnson initially thought he wasn’t old enough to take on Willy Loman. “I realized that, yes, I am,” he says with a chuckle. And, he was daunted by the prospect. “The expectations are there with those who know the show, and [Death of a Salesman] is just so damn good. We have that on our side. I’m not terribly worried, but I sure don’t want to mess it up.”

To take on Willy’s wife Linda, Moores channels her youth and her experience as a mother and grandmother. “Playing Linda is touching, it’s that generational piece I know,” Moores says. “I was alive when the play debuted and I clearly remember and am very familiar with this mother … this support system.”

Linda is the steel-rod spine attempting to hold her husband and her family together. “She helps support the illusion, despite seeing the chinks in his armor,” Moores explains. “She is also firm in her commitment to marriage. I still see her protecting that union. ‘He’s my man’, and she tries to be the glue that holds him together.” There is infidelity in Willy’s life and the road is lonely, but at home, Linda fills the void.

Both actors see Death of a Salesman as that mirror held up to society. Johnson perceives Willy’s dreams and visions as tainted by what society of the late 1940s told him. “His images of what a father, husband and provider are came from Madison Avenue. The image of a worker was one of success. The image of a father was a man who could raise children who are admired. As a husband and father, he was supposed to leave his sons a legacy. He hasn’t made anything for the boys; he’s not respected and has some terrible regrets. The way to leave any sort of legacy is an insurance policy.”

“Here’s a family that did everything right and worked hard, but they’re not making it,” Moores continues. “The Lomans are so relevant. The current economy has probably created many Willy and Linda Lomans … maybe by the thousands.”

Moores didn’t care for Linda at the first reading. “I honestly thought, ‘What a mop.’ Then, with each subsequent reading, I saw the added layers. I love her and I admire her. I would have words with her if she and I came face to face today, but I know she is going to be fun to play. She definitely defers everything for Willy.”

Each time he reads his script Johnson discovers more layers to his character. “He’s a complicated guy with complicated memories. It’s going to be interesting to see Eric help me weave in and out of reality, my memories and my dreams. I like Willy despite his slips and disloyalties. He is believable and sympathetic. I enjoy him and he’s pretty easy for me to climb into.” The other aspect Johnson likes is the contemporary, poetic language. “It’s not ordinary or colloquial, but it is accessible. Miller knew how to craft elegant words for a common man.”

“Truly, I can’t wait to give this show to an audience,” Moores says. “Those who haven’t seen it in a long time will undoubtedly find the play similar to a good book that’s open and re-read often.”

Reflecting on the raw emotions of Death of a Salesman, the pair share their final thoughts on the play. Moores is moved by its ending: “The last scene when Linda is saying farewell at the gravesite, she talks about how difficult it is to let go. She definitely wants to know what she could have done differently to save her husband.” Johnson adds, “Willy thought his sons could benefit from the insurance policy, but in the end, no one has closure and that is an American tragedy.”

There is already significant buzz among Kansas City theatre-goers about the Rep’s Death of a Salesman and its all-star cast. With Johnson and Moores in the lead roles, and directed by Rosen, audiences can expect Willy and Linda to be portrayed with a deft combination of brutal honesty, sincerity and tenderness.•

Death of a Salesman is a co-production with UMKC Theatre, with the generous support of the Hall Family Foundation.

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