11th grade English students sold on performance of Miller’s play

Students in 11th Grade English classes were given the opportunity to attend a special educational performance of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

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On Wednesday, April 26, 11th grade English students, along with English teachers Mrs. Bouch and Mr. Youngs, took a field trip to the O’Reilly Theatre in Pittsburgh’s Cultural District to see the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s special performance of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

Students in all 11th grade English classes read Miller’s play as part of their drama unit.

The show stars Zach Grenier as the main character, Willy Loman. Grenier is most widely recognized for his role on the CBS show The Good Wife, where Grenier played divorce attorney David Lee for seven seasons.

Copyright ©, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2017, all rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
Zach Grenier as Willy Loman

Grenier told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette he always dreamed of playing the role of Willy Loman. However, he hopes the audience will not expect this character to be similar to his portrayal of David Lee.

Grenier said, “You work for decades and decades on the stage, TV and film, working with people like Ang Lee and David Fincher, and then you are remembered for a particular character — which is wonderful — but it would be unfortunate for someone to think they are coming to see David Lee’s version of Willy Loman.”

It would be unfortunate for someone to think they are coming to see David Lee’s version of Willy Loman.”

— Zach Grenier

The play follows Willy Loman, a salesman who struggles to provide for his family even as he dreams of making it big and creating a better life for his sons.

Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman addresses loss of identity and a man’s inability to accept change within himself and society. The play is a montage of memories, dreams, confrontations, and arguments, all of which make up the last 24 hours of Willy Loman’s life. The play concludes with Willy’s suicide and subsequent funeral.

Junior Tyler Crider said, “I enjoyed the show very much. The show used its props to convey the changes between the present and past and the use of a see-through screen to show that the person speaking was just in Willy’s head.  My favorite part of the show were the actors. The actors all played their respective parts very well. I believe that Zach Grenier, who played the lead character Willy, was the best actor at the show.”

The actors all played their respective parts very well. I believe that Zach Grenier, who played the lead character Willy, was the best actor at the show.”

— Tyler Crider

AP English 11 teacher, Mrs Bouch, said, “This performance surpassed my expectations.  I have read and taught the play for years. I have often complemented Miller’s text with the movie starring Dustin Hoffman, who sets the bar high, so I didn’t expect Zach Grenier’s portrayal to meet that standard.   Grenier captured Miller’s text with his tired posture, vocal range, and old man moans and groans.”

Death of a Salesman’s analysis of the American Dream is so profound it won the author, Arthur Miller, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play.

Grenier’s portrayal of Willy Loman was a skillful and accurate representation of Miller’s writing. Throughout the play, Miller describes Willy as becoming lost in the past or trailing off thoughts as Willy loses focus. Grenier portrayed this absent mindedness and nostalgic flashback with great skill. Scenes flowed seamlessly from the present to the past.

Mrs Bouch commented on the interaction between Grenier and co-star Kathleen McNenny, who portrays the role of Willy’s wife. Mrs Bouch said, “I appreciated the dynamics of all of the characters, especially in how Zach Grenier (Willy) and Kathleen McNenny (Linda) interacted.  When he was exhausted, she offered encouragement and took off his shoes.  As Miller intended, McNenny was unconditionally devoted to being her husband’s ‘foundation and support.'”

The role of Biff Loman, Willy’s estranged son, was portrayed by Alex Mickiewicz. The stage chemistry between Mickiewicz and Grenier was phenomenal– the many confrontations between their two characters were incredibly convincing. The interaction of Biff and Willy was phenomenally genuine. As an audience member, I could easily have believed the conflicted relationship between Biff and Willy was in fact legitimate hostility between the actors had I not known otherwise.

Copyright ©, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2017, all rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
Confrontation between Happy, played by Maxwell Eddy (Left), Biff, played by Alex Mickiewicz (Middle), and Willy, played by Zach Grenier (Right).

Another great pairing was between Mickiewicz and actor Maxwell Eddy, who portrayed Biff’s brother Happy. The dialogue and interaction between Mickiewicz and Eddy made the audience believe the two characters were brothers. The slightly conflicted dynamic between Biff, the favorite son who did not want his father’s attention, and Happy, the less favored son who wanted nothing but his father’s recognition, was very evident at appropriate moments.

Death of a Salesman was staged at the O’Reilly theater, the experience of the show was quite unique due to the theater’s setup. The O’Reilly features a thrust stage design, the stage extending into the audience on three sides, connected to backstage on the upstage side, and no proscenium arch. The stage was set up with an LED lined house frame as the background, with two raised platforms on either side of upstage. On the stage right raised platform were two beds to form the bedroom of Biff and Happy. On the other platform was a singular bed to represent the bedroom of Willy and his wife Linda. Downstage center was a table and chairs to form the kitchen of the Loman household. The majority of the performance occurred in this downstage section.

Lighting transitions and subtle sound effects were used to differentiate between the present and Willy’s flashbacks. Combined, the lighting and sound designers of the show have worked on more than 100 shows with Pittsburgh Public Theatre. This experience could clearly be seen. Lighting and sound transitions flowed seamlessly from one cue to another.

All in all, the only negative to the show was Willy’s occasionally incomprehensible dialogue. While some mumbling is to be expected from the character of Willy, Grenier sometimes took this too far, with lines being lost as a result.

In conclusion, Death of a Salesman is yet another great success to add to the wonderful history of performances put together by Pittsburgh Public Theater, I would highly recommend this production. I can’t wait to see the next show in PPT’s outstanding lineup.

Tickets for Death of a Salesman are available here.

Additional information about the show is available here.