When Eric Rosen joined Kansas City Repertory Theatre in 2007 as its new artistic director, he made several promises to the community: to increase the Rep’s visibility on a national level, to export the best of the Rep’s work to other theaters across the country, and to showcase the city’s extraordinary local actors. Promises fulfilled. “Even as Kansas City Rep spreads its wings and reaches a level of national visibility, its strength is in its Kansas City roots,” Rosen has commented.
As he was preparing to direct Arthur Miller’s stage classic Death of a Salesman, Rosen knew the core of his Salesman ensemble was in last year’s highly praised production of August: Osage County: “Gary Neal (Johnson) and Merle (Moores) were destined to be my Willy and Linda Loman.” Death of a Salesman also features Kip Niven, Rusty Sneary and Cheryl Weaver from the August cast, and Kyle Hatley, Mark Robbins, Brian Paulette, Chris Roady and several graduate students from the UMKC Department of Theatre. Death of a Salesman is a co-production with UMKC Theatre, with support from the Hall Family Foundation.
Death of a Salesman represents Rosen’s dream project. “Miller was on experimental ground with this play, which examines human experiences and memories and how they really feel to us. It’s very non-traditional, very non-linear. Through Willy Loman, he looks at how time and memory work.”
Rosen’s interest in Willy and his likely dementia hits close to home, as his own mother is coping with early onset Alzheimer’s. “With Willy, I can see what my mother went through. It’s what I am interested in. Willy seems more comfortable with his early childhood memories – he seems to almost reach out and touch them – rather than being in the current moment.” As a director, Rosen expects to create memory sequences that collide with the present, and he hints that his staging “could be exaggerated and impressionistic.”
“I saw the 1984 Broadway revival with Dustin Hoffman, but have deliberately avoided the current New York production. I want our Salesman to exist here, as if it is new. I also don’t want to treat the play as if it is some great monumental task. Miller gives me challenges and limits that I have to capture, but we have the skills to do this play and do it unbelievably well. It’s vital that we aren’t overly reverent with it.”
Directors sometimes modernize plays and alter the language to fit today’s contemporary nature, but Rosen plans to keep his production set in the late 1940s. “It is of its era and we are not so far removed. It’s a play about the recent past which is familiar enough that it will tell the truth just fine. There are points of reference such as the end of World War II which grandparents and parents will remember. It is not that hard to transport us to that time.”
Rosen, who is an academician as much as an artistic director, wants his actors and subsequent audience to understand that the post-World War II sense of optimism did not really pick up until the mid-1950s, and that class struggles are clear in Death of a Salesman. “The wealthy are getting wealthier as the poor struggle to move into the middle class,” he says. “Willy’s sons Happy and Biff demonstrate this strife as they attempt to find a golden future. The history of class is clear as the Lomans hope for some sort of deliverance, but find themselves still as broke as they were in the Depression.”
“Willy is the subject of the play and Linda is the object, and their relationship provides the story’s focal point. Willy is unfaithful and he treats his kids lousy, but he still tries. And, through Linda, Miller lets us know that although Willy is not a great man, he should not be ‘allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog.’ In this passage from the play, Miller gives the argument for the American tragedy. It’s not the classic Greek tragedy with kings and heroes falling from their lofty pedestal. His story is profound. Willy Loman sits next to Hamlet.”