Thursday, March 14, 2019

The Fallacy of the American Dream - a conversation with the star and director of DEATH OF A SALESMAN

Walt Pedano
by Julia Bashaw

Death of a Salesman; the title of Arthur Miller's Pulitzer Prize winning play doesn’t really leave too much room for interpretation Or does it? It seems clear that a salesman will die by the end of the show, but how does it get there, who are the characters, and how does the story of a broken traveling salesman in 1949 relate to a modern audience?

Willy Loman is a father, a failure, and a salesman who feels as though he ruined and wasted his life. The play follows the events in Willy’s mind as he dreams of past life experiences that could have been or should have happened, all while he interacts with his family. In Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre's production of this Tony winning play that opens this Friday, Walt Pedano portrays Willy Loman under Virginia Olivieri's direction.

“It all takes place over 36 hours, maybe two days,” explained Pedano. “Because it floats back in time periodically and also floats through Willy’s mind, it is a wild ride. It is a fascinating picture of a man’s dreams who have been shattered but he desperately wants his son Biff to succeed where he failed. That’s the pressure that he puts on Biff because Willy sees himself as such a failure. He is trying to live vicariously through his son but his son is an ordinary man. It is the most complicated mysterious role that I have ever encountered.”

“It’s dramatic theatre, it’s definitely not a comedy,” Olivieri said truthfully. “There are two core stories essentially in Death of a Salesman. One is the fallacy of the 'American Dream' and the other core story is the perception of yourself within your family dynamic and how those pressures that your family puts on you shapes your life in either positive or negative ways.”

This play was written by Arthur Miller after the end of World War II and premiered on Broadway in 1949. That was 70 years ago, and yet this play is still relevant in the 21st century.

Walt Pedano, Matt Winter, Mo Simpson, and Donna Kaufman
photo by Wade Moran
“We still can relate to it,” Olivieri strongly stated, “What I find wonderful about Death of a Salesman, because there is no right or wrong reaction, people will have reactions to Willy Loman and what he does in either a very negative way or they’ll pity him. They won’t feel sorry for him because he did this onto himself or they will feel sorry for him because it is somebody who did the best they could in the mindset that they lived in. They will either completely understand why the Loman family ended up the way they did or they can walk away saying, I am so glad my family is not as messed up as that family! Our own personal history and experience will mold the opinion you have of Willy Loman and his choices.”

Pedano and Olivieri have been friends for seven years, they met when they were both cast in the same play. For a few years now they had been discussing the possibility of performing this play. Olivieri wanted to direct and have Pedano as the salesman.

“I am extremely attracted to complicated dramas in which real human relationships are tested,” Olivieri stated with passion. “I adore Walt, I have known him for about seven years now. He and I have worked on several projects together, we work well together. He understands my type of directing and I understand his type of acting. I like to see people on stage telling a story, storytelling is what’s important to me. People being able to tell the story in the most truthful, honest way possible, and Walt is very good at that. Walt allows me to work on him and push him. He takes direction so well and understands the concept of what we are trying to do.”

Pedano explained that he always thought that in one point in his career he would play Biff, Willy’s son, but that he missed that role. Now that he is playing Willy, a character who Pedano doesn’t relate to, he has had to push himself. Even at this point in his career, he admitted he is still learning and growing.

“The biggest challenge is the role itself,” Pedano said. “It is mysterious, complicated, and passionate. I would never do the things that Willy did, I could not do them. But the biggest reward? It is such a wild ride. It’s such a beautiful ride into another person that is so different than me. It’s a rollercoaster.”

Virginia Olivieri
Becoming another person is hard enough, but even more so when you have to work with others who are doing the same. Four strangers had to suddenly become a family, one that had years of history and complications. Olivieri had to cast that family, and then direct those members into a believable performance.

“The core is the family; Willy, Linda, Biff, and Harold,” Olivieri explained. “I needed these four to be in sync together with chemistry. If you do not have that, you do not have a show. I ended up with four incredible actors. The stars aligned and I got a phenomenal cast who all work so well together and take direction well. I am just one of those obnoxious people who when I lock into what I want I am very difficult to steer in another direction.”

So what is the purpose of this show? According to Olivieri and Pedano, it is so much deeper than hope, sadness, or joy. This show has power behind it, and audiences will hopefully be walking away with more than just entertainment.

“I want this show to spark a discussion,” Olivieri stated. “I want people to discuss what reality is and the unattainability of the ‘American Dream’ in our world today. We need reality checks, it goes with the theme of the show; we can’t live in this fantasy world that you’ve created in your own mind because it just isn’t real. We need those humbling reality checks and there are several of those in the show. If the audience allows it in they will walk away with such a beautiful experience. This is a different type of escapism and if people are open to it they will walk away with a lot.”

“I take away another person with me and put them in the closet with the other ones,” Pedano said humbly. “For audiences, I just hope I am giving them something to think about. In 1949 after the war the ‘American Dream’ was paramount. Arthur Miller decided if I am going to write a drama then it’s going to be about a man who failed in this ‘American Dream’.”

“But also you can think,” added Olivieri, “did Willy Loman fail the ‘American dream’ or did the ‘American dream’ fail Willy Loman?”

That is what audiences can decide and debate when they see Death of a Salesman at Desert Stages Theatre. It opens March 15th and runs through April 14th.

CLICK HERE for more information on this production

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