Death of a Salesman: Electricity and Intensity

Image 8DM actor Mark Gruber talks about taking on the iconic role of Willy Loman in Repertory Theatre of Iowa's September production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman


RTI: You've had a long and varied career in Des Moines theatre.  What have been some of your favorite past roles to play and why?

Mark Gruber: I'm no different than most actors who will consistently confess the need to feed the appetite of a challenge. The best roles are never the easiest roles. Last year, I played Boolie in Driving Miss Daisy and our performance each night was like a life affirming smile.  I remember saying to both Kim and Tyrees, (Hoke, Daisy)   "I wouldn't mind being 'stuck' with this play, doing a 6 months run". Because most plays can be a labor, but not that one. But all my acting experiences have a balance of bitter and sweet when the last curtain comes down.

My favorite characters have consistently been from the writers who offer a density to the role.  By that I mean there are both layers and depth to the character's connection to the story and ancillary characters.  Shakespeare is easily my favorite model (Benedict, Bottom, Hamlet)  and just like naming your favorite child - each role has had its own delight, but there's great VOLTAGE in these plays, as there is in Willy and in the play Death of a Salesman. The potential is there on the page and my favorite roles have always been those that feel in performance like you're driving the most well crafted and high performance car.  It's like a ride and hopefully you take some audience along with you. That favorite role always felt like that; a deep loss of self accompanied by the emergence and intensity of someone like Malvolio, or George (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf)  springing into a new and intense world, when it's done well. And when it's a disturbing world, there's something therapeutic about embracing the short couple of hours, to then let it go. The lingering of my favorite roles is akin to gaining a friend. I can revisit them again. However, it's also true that at my age, and playing Willy Loman offers an intense example of this; I'm confronted with a certain mortality. As a younger actor, I never conceived that I may never play again this or that role, but especially with favorite Shakespeare roles like Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, I now readily feel the clock that ticks incessantly.  Realistically, I'll say to my self both how fortunate I've been to have the experience (i.e.  Chekhov's Swan Song, or directing Cat On A Hot Tin Roof), and the mortality of my acting career - as I will likely not pass through this play again in my life time. It sounds a bit fatalistic or depressing but it is in actuality affirming, like adding a rich chapter to your life's book, but the book does have prologue and final chapter.   

 RTI: You are taking on the major role of Willy Loman.  How would you characterize your approach and connection to the character?

MG: Willy Loman?   Under construction!!!   But the voltage in Miller's play is present in spades!   This is a tender time to answer any question specifically about WILLY. I can't think of another role that better fits the billing of 'iconic'. Why is that? Willy is certainly an intense portrait of an american experience. Like Willy, I've got two boys. My boys are now age 19 and 25. Just the reflection of my life as I've long past mid life, and I'm nearing that 'empty nest' phase, is for me packed with importance.  Miller's offered a portrait of complexity and passion. I'm in the middle of uncovering Willy's connection (healthy and otherwise) with his son Biff. I will say with some certainty that the component of 'great expectation' in Miller's portrait is two sides of one coin. Have yet to decipher how both sides meld into this one performance. It's out there, and WE'LL find it. I'm confident with Brad's direction and an excellent ensemble around me, that I'll arrive at some nice renderings of Willy.   

RTI: In what ways do you see this role and play as relatable to modern audiences and our contemporary world?

MG: The earliest consideration I had when RTI committed to Miller's great play was the relevance to any of our audience, especially those under a certain age. Is this story steeped in Americana of some yesteryear?    I've an instinct that both things are true. It is a play of specific time and place, but we will remain hopeful that this will be an asset to realizing the potent themes and tragic consequences of this play. The play is chok full of universal themes and experiences that can be seen in contemporary life AND I know that it is more than ever a rare example that a man works his professional life, supporting his wife and kids, with the same job for 34 years. This was MY father's world.  Those born 1900 - 1940 I believe do have a different lens, and kids today easily could keep WILLY in a yesteryear book. Our challenge is clear, and I'm confident we'll knock some dust off this great play. Each revival of this play has had some success and so will RTI.  So. . . contemporary audiences, here we come.  

 RTI: Why do enjoy performing and in particular performing with Repertory Theater of Iowa?

MG: Never a dull day!  For me, the stage offers an intense dose of variables. I love this about the stage play.  It's a collaborative art, and that exercises all my "art" muscles. RTI sets out to do nothing less than 'makin' a whole new world'. After a couple of weeks performing, that world evaporates like so much smoke.  In that way, performance is a spiritual journey. Shaping a performance is a flood of choices, and it excites the senses to realize a great play that was never meant to be just required reading in high school. RTI is invested in that tradition and I'm devoted along with my fellow company to dusting off that "literature" meant for an audience. All the Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Chekhov, and Arthur Miller is great LITERATURE, but when taken to the stage; performances can be inspiring, and occasionally it can leave a lasting impression.

Repertory Theatre of Iowa presents Death of a Salesman starting September 23 at the Kum & Go Theatre.  

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Repertory Theatre of Iowa Death of a Saleman Mark Gruber