Friday, April 22, 2011

Death of a Theater Phobia

I'm a patron of the arts—always have been, always will be. But I haven't developed a taste for all performing arts. Theater is one of those arts. Nearly a decade ago, my wife and I would go to a few plays a year—maybe 1 or 2. [She may disagree with that number, but she certainly wouldn't dispute that I quit theater-going cold turkey about 5 or 6 years ago.] I can't even remember the last one I attended, but I do recall the last 3 or 4 plays that I did go to, I became ... disinterested. Disinterested during the performances. Thespians may have been pouring their heart and soul into their craft, regardless, it didn't connect with me and the daydreaming machine would inevitably start (Hmm... At intermission, should I have beer or wine? Did I leave the iron plugged in? I wonder if the Brewers are winning? etc.). In all likelihood, I probably just wasn't going to a play suited to my predisposition—sort of like reading a Haruki Murakami novel before graduating from Green Lantern comic books. So, for at least a half of a decade, I avoided theater the way Kathy Griffin avoids funny jokes.

Lee Ernst as Willy Loman
However, last night we decided to give it a whirl and we went to the Milwaukee Repertory Theater—more commonly known as "The Rep"—for their production of "Death of a Salesman." And, boy, did I enjoy it! I was riveted for the entire performance—no daydreaming, no adult beverage contemplation, no nothing. I just fell into the story and stayed there. I was really impressed with the whole show, but particularly with Lee E. Ernst's portrayal of Willy Loman. It was incredibly powerful. It made me wonder why in the world anybody would want to be an actor! To put that much energy and emotion into a performance every, single night would be draining—both mentally and physically, I think. And Mr. Ernst holds nothing back.


I am certain that I wasn't the only one moved by Mr. Ernst's interpretation of Willy Loman. In the final seconds of the play, when the actors and actresses walked off the stage, you could hear a pin drop. And, had a pin actually dropped, it would have sounded like a cannon blast. The players walked near our seats on their way out and my wife and I were both transfixed by the look on their faces—they were playing their role until they were fully off-stage. Hell, I bet they stayed in character until they were finally resting comfortably on a barstool 7 blocks away!

Finally, a note about the play itself. This has long been considered a classic work by Arthur Miller. I recall reading it in high school literature and thinking it was okay, however, there is no filter like the prism of age and experience to bring Mr. Miller's vision into focus. Having been a working person for at least 20 years, I could connect with certain emotions and verbiage expressed by Willy. These are expressions I could not possibly have understood at 17 years of age.

Now I completely understand why Death of a Salesman was the recipient of the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play. It gets my award for the best play that I've seen in the last 5 years for sure!

It runs through May 8th at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater in Milwaukee. Go see it if you get the chance. You won't regret it.


Important follow-up: I shared the above post with Mr. Ernst and he replied with the following:

Hi Mike,

Hey, thanks so much for your kind words. I'm glad we were able to get you with this one. I love the play, and, while it may be draining (yes it is!) it is also a great honor to be able to share Miller's incredibly profound story eight times a week.

Best Regards,

This made my day!

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