WASHINGTON — It won the Tony for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1949.
Nearly 70 years later, Arthur Miller’s masterwork “Death of a Salesman” hits Ford’s Theatre (Sept. 22-Oct. 22), starring a pair of real-life spouses in Craig Wallace and Kimberly Schraf.
“I always love doing a play with Kim,” Wallace told WTOP. “Kim and I met doing a play and we just bring our trust and respect for each other right onto the stage. It’s fantastic for us to play a husband and wife. We just take our relationship from home and bring it onto the stage.”
Don’t worry, the couple jokes that they can endure the play’s tragic conclusion.
“It’s sobering to think what vision we’re getting of where we may be heading,” Schraf joked. “This is scary work. If you don’t trust the person opposite of you, there are a lot of lonely moments. I never blink. I know anything can go wrong and Craig is our rock. You gaze into the other actor’s eyes and yes, I see Willy Lowman, but I also see the person I live my life with.”
While the stars pull from personal experience, the story itself comes from a personal place.
“Miller’s father was a salesman,” Schraf said. “He was in the garment district of New York and lost everything in the  stock market crash. This is torn from the pages of his childhood.”
We all know the iconic story of Willy Lowman, who spends 24 hours reflecting on his life as a father, husband and traveling salesman. Schraf will never forget reading it for the first time.
“[It was in] middle school, hunkered in the back of the library with a big volume of Broadway plays,” Schraf said. “I was enthralled. I had never read anything quite like it. My purest reception of the play was that first, solo read because once you know what it is, you can never return to that blissful ignorance of: ‘What’s next? What’s next? Oh no, really? There? Yes!'”
Still, no matter how many times you’ve seen it, the stinging social commentary remains.
“There’s a lot of the American Dream in this play, who’s entitled to it, how do you get it, which is today as much as it was 50 years ago,” Wallace said. “There are people in the play who work hard and are successful. [Willy] has been waiting for a piece of the American pie all of his life; he wakes up one morning and realizes he’s still no closer to it and the line is longer.”
“There are promises made,” Schraf said. “You hang your hat on a dream, then there are moments in a life where you feel betrayed by what was promised. … ‘If I just work hard, hold my head up and raise my sons right, aren’t there rewards? Don’t I get the dividend?'”
This broken promise of the American Dream leaves Willy in a bad place.
“He’s at the end of his rope,” Wallace said. “Business is bad, he has a terrible relationship with his favorite son, and he’s facing emotional problems. So, we see the final 24 hours of his life unfold through his family and his job. Everything falls apart. … He has so many expectations and dreams for Biff. He could live his life through his son, if his son would only succeed.”
Helping to tell the crumbling father-son relationship is a pair of rising talents from previous Ford’s productions. You’ll recognize the eldest son Biff as Thomas Keegan from “The Glass Menagerie” and younger son Happy as Danny Gavigan from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
“They’re both intuitive, visceral, smart, generous,” Schraf said. “Instant chemistry, emotional availability, openhearted love, when you need them to push, they push back hard.”
Meanwhile, it’s up to Schraf to show the toll it takes on the mother.
“Without knowing why, she knows he’s in crisis,” Schraf said. “She’s very much a woman of the 1930s — hard to be a woman in an Arthur Miller universe — but she has a wife’s and mother’s flint and grit. Her biggest weapon is her love. She’s trying to throw him a lifeline.”
These dynamic relationships all unfold through Miller’s signature writing style.
“I think he’s this fascinating blend of hard-hitting, direct prose and lyrical poetry,” Schraf said. “He probably leads with the first, but there are moments of shattering beauty in his writing. So there’s something about that dichotomy of grit and imagery or poetry.”
These words are brought to life by director Stephen Rayne (“Our Town”).
“Stephen is particularly invested in two things: the story, people and relationships, but [also] he really thinks about the physical production,” Schraf said. “I have this image of Stephen in the rehearsal room with our tiny model of the set and he is gazing at it. I think he must take it home with him! He’s constantly processing how the story will unfold in the space.”
What exactly do we see visually?
“The challenge is that Miller says we’ve got to have a house — that’s reality, that’s the present — but on a dime in Willy’s imagination it’s got to transform into a number of locations,” Schraf said. “We see a restaurant, we see a couple of different office buildings, we see the house in a different time. It all swirls and comes into focus minimally and economically.”
Rayne’s creative spark 70 years later proves that Miller’s work stands the test of time.
“I think actors, directors and theaters keep coming back to these classics because they keep mining new levels in them,” Schraf said. “This is not your father’s ‘Death of a Salesman,’ but it is Arthur Miller’s and it speaks to today. If you’re a child, parent, employer or person with dreams, you need to come see this play. You’re going to find something fresh in it, we hope.”
Not to mention, you’ll see two spouses duel three decades after they first met on stage.
“It was a scintillating production,” Schraf said. “A Neil Bartlett adaptation of Molière’s ‘Misanthrope.’ … It was mostly local actors and this new guy from out of town that nobody knew: that was Craig. We forged such fond, deep bonds in that show and realized we were the same kind of actors on the same page. It was a giddy experience. … Something sparked.”
Watching from the wings, a romance was born between two actors.
“We had small parts, so we had a lot of off-stage time,” Wallace said with a wink.
Click here for more on “Death of a Salesman.” Listen to our full chat with the cast below:
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