Death of a Salesman

0297e7dc f2ee 441c b10a 8942f7f74118A “classical education” is a bit of a cliché, but here’s a theatrical twist on it. Opening next weekend is Death of a Salesman from Roosevelt Repertory Theatre, a new group made up of Roosevelt High School teachers, students, and other creative individuals from the area. Birthed out of their Advanced Theatre class, it’s a chance to explore this incredible play from a variety of points of view and experience levels.

“The genesis of this project came out through discussions in my Advanced Theatre class, and grew from student interest in the script,” says Micheal Davenport, who is in charge of Roosevelt’s usual offerings. “Roosevelt Repertory Theatre is not the regular high school theatre department--it is a specific studio lab where dedicated students, most of whom gave up their summer to rehearse, have the chance to learn from and work with talented professionals.”


Classic Challenge

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Such a unique project is a double-edged sword for Davenport, or perhaps more triple-edged. “For me, the challenges as an actor is accepting the skepticism and criticism of a 38 year-old man portraying a man in his 60’s. However, I might add that the original Willy Loman, Lee J. Cobb, was the same age as I when he first inhabited the role. Secondly, I have the challenge of also directing the show and appearing in it. Thirdly, I have the challenge of producing this great script as a Theatre Arts teacher, sharing the stage and acting alongside the very students I teach in the classroom.”

This is why the concept of Roosevelt Repertory is such a wonderful thing, and helps bridge the gap between the many “youth” theatre organizations we have in our area and the community theatres at large. “This is a community theatre of sorts,” insists Davenport, “and it’s a black box studio lab for theatre—very experimental for us. Three performing arts teachers from Roosevelt act in this show; a local professional, Cloris nominate Debra Garner; and another is a professor from DMACC, a trained University of Iowa Playwright, and Dimmet Scholar of Morningside College, Lorenzo Sandoval.”

72183ff1 4d36 4ab0 9495 b51a7f79f868“We have 6 students from sophomores to seniors. Gary McCall (Happy), Sam Beaumont (Biff), and Holden McGraw (Bernard), and even more highly talented student performers. These talented students are the stars of the show—audiences simply will not believe that many of these performers are high school students. They are poised, empathetic, and skilled dramatists. It’s a pleasure to teach and work alongside them. Too, we are lucky with this production, we have three expert-level students on the production team: Geneva Klein (Assistant Director), Jane Romp (Stage Manager), and Emma Steffes (Assistant Stage Manager and Costumer).”


Classic Relationship

Local favorite Debra Garner is playing Linda Loman, the wife of Willy and the glue that tries to hold the family together. She has worked with Micheal before in a number of shows, and it’s an easy partnership. “There is a huge amount of trust and respect between the two of us,” she says. “’Chemistry’ on stage is a gift. When Micheal directed Jim Arthur and me in On Golden Pond last year, many say that Jim and I had a good chemistry. Micheal and I have that same good chemistry. He and I know each other pretty well. That will, no doubt, be a plus for us (and the production) on the stage.”

Garner also feels strongly about how to perform a classic such as Death of a Salesman. Playwright Arthur Miller was very specific about exactly how his characters speak and interact with each other, and Garner relates a tale talking about the particular words Miller chose to illustrate this world:

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“What it did was to validate the use of language the way Salesman uses language. “People have forgotten that, thank God, that Willy Loman isn’t talking street talk; Willy Loman’s talk is very formed and formal, very often. It’s almost Victorian. That was the decision Arthur Miller made: to lift him into the area where one could deal with his ideas and his feelings and make them applicable to the whole human race.”

Garner and company have continued this emphasis on language in their version. “We cross referenced the lines in our script to the First Edition of Death of a Salesman,” she notes. “We want to tell the story exactly like Arthur Miller wrote it. That attention to detail is extremely important to how we see this production.”


Classic Content

Davenport is also attentive to the detail, and knows it would be far too easy for a recognized classic like Death of a Salesman to fall short of the brilliance it can be. It’s about how to create that connection with an audience, and show a complete picture of a man and not just a cypher.

“Audiences find a likability (if it’s done right) and a commonality in Willy Loman, Biff, and the entire Loman family. There is a universal humanity that runs through this play that touches so many people. But again, if it’s done wrong, it descends into just depressions and Willy being a lifeless, pathetic, sad-sack from the beginning; if it has no levels and is merely shouting or crying the whole way through then that is terribly boring. Audiences must see, and they will in our production, the things that made Willy a respectable salesman and experienced ‘businessman,’ a father whom doted on and championed his sons—despite some hiccups and warts along the way.”

8aebf71a 0d67 45bf b41f 86f7e8be79be“Arthur Miller was not merely a tragedian, he was actually quite funny—smart humor—and audiences will see and hear that. Incidentally, that’s what makes Willy’s so-called tragic fall so powerful—and the show so emotional. At best, Willy is an everyman that one can relate to, be it from themselves, their father, brother, uncle, etc. But at worst, he’s just a yelling, delusional, failure. The Lomans live in the modern world—and the audiences and the actors on stage do too. This is not a 60 year old show, this is a show as relevant as right now.”

Considering some of the themes in Death of a Salesman, it is important to the cast and crew to relate the drama to the issues faced by many in the real world. As a result, there will be talkbacks after the Thursday and Sunday performances with representatives of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the Iowa Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. And a portion of the ticket sales from the performances will go to these important groups.

You can help these groups by attending the production of Death of a Salesman, presented by Roosevelt Repertory Theatre. Performances are September 6, 8, and 9 (note: no Friday performance) and are held at the Roosevelt High School Auditorium. Tickets can be purchased through and at the door (due to limited seating, reserved online ticketing is encouraged).

Debra Garner Micheal Davenport Roosevelt Repertory Theatre