Behind the Scenes: Dramaworks’ Death of a Salesman

By Bill Hirschman

In England, theater artists are encouraged to re-explore and reinterpret virtually any of its scores of timeless “classics.”

But conversely in America, there are homegrown “classics” that theater artists consider inarguably inviolable.

Top of any list is Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman – a tragedy of human failings awash in a criticism of overprioritizing fiscal success as a definition of your life’s worth.

So, through April 20, Palm Beach Dramaworks’ veteran director J. Barry Lewis and frequent actor Rob Donohoe are embracing the seemingly contradictory challenges of instilling new vigor, imagination and freshness without violating an experienced audience’s recollections of past productions.

It’s not easy because over 75 years, the original iteration with Lee. J. Cobb has been revived on Broadway five times with such leads as Dustin Hoffman, Wendell Pierce and Brian Dennehy, on film, on television, the quintessential American work welcomed as “their” story by playgoers in India and China, and produced on a local level hundreds of times across the nation.

Lewis, who only worked on one Salesman production uncounted years ago, said sometimes it’s that very familiarity that redraws an audience. “Why does anyone go back to see Fiddler on the Roof for their 10th time? There’s a comfort sometimes when we recognize a piece of theater, that we know that we had a very strong response to, and we’re curious about seeing if that response remains constant.”

But with a masterwork like Salesman, the script’s age, even with it being rooted in a very emblematic time and place, most productions still strike a profound universal chord that transcends specifics of decade, social standing and the economics of a work ethic.

Lewis has studied the secret of its timelessness: “I think that it has as much to do with how relevant the story is in terms of the relevancy for a 2024 audience and how that story never changes. We live in a world that, as humans, we are responsible to each other, to ourselves.”

A key aspect for adults is to reacquaint with the complexities of making choices, Lewis said. “I forgot within the play how important is that lifelong sense of choices, and what that does to us, whether they’re the right or the wrong choices, how it is to be determined sometimes. Here we’ve got a lot of wrong choices, based on the right idea, but wrong choices.”

“They’re family-based issues and that deal with capitalism and certain ideas, in a way that… I think when you come back, there’s not an aging process that” antiquates the themes, Lewis said. “I think the universal nature of the American dream, issues of parenting, of family, of father and son, those today are still issues that we grapple with on an everyday basis.

“A good story can have that transition or that style of just universal appeal. I think Miller, surprisingly, he didn’t think of it, the time in which he wrote it. He just thought it was that he had a story to tell and that it was connected not only to the period of time and the day in which he wrote it. But I’m sure he did not consider the universalness of it himself, except a lot of his work does that. It speaks to the human condition.”

While the script remains inviolable, Lewis is committed to instill freshness in the production. In research, Lewis read thoughts from Elia Kazan, the director of the original production. While Kazan did not go through with his idea for the physical set design, “he said, ‘I think this story can sustain itself on three empty platforms with almost rehearsal furniture’ focusing on the themes and the people,” Lewis said.

So, an ultra-simple visual design for Dramaworks is reminiscent of that, pressing the audience to provide more and asking themselves “How do I look? How do I hear? How do I see?”

“We are hyper-focusing the story through the dialogue, through the relationships, and then letting the audience fill in around that information. And then they, in their mind, are creating, hopefully, everything else. Where are we? The past, the present, the future, how those interactions work.

On three open platforms, with sparse, minimalistic furniture, what the audience sees the story moving “between realism versus the dream state because … I truly believe that the story is being told in his mind… so he’s visualizing things that are not necessarily there, but are there. And so we were trying to capture that in the design as well.”

Lewis and a company of Dramaworks’ veterans and newcomers aren’t twisting the venerable core of the basic play, but tweaking what is seen on stage.

“The delivery mode of our production is… if you were to separate it out, you would probably say that it had a very strong statement to it. It is not the traditional (original designer Jo) Mielziner set concept. It is a much darker, more almost narrative storyline that is stripped down to its bare essentials so that the audience must participate when they’re observing it in a little bit of a different manner. Where is this? Where are they? Oh… it looks like a bedroom space, or this could be a kitchen space, or this could be a restaurant. But nothing is in detail. It’s all in representational, suggestive states in which an audience then must participate and fill in the visuals sometime…. We’re just simply not using the set design in the traditional way that you would expect of a naturalistic story.”

The linchpin part of deteriorated, played-out salesman Willy Loman is being played by veteran actor Rob Donohoe. He has not done the part before, but he is familiar to regional theater audience across the country, locally in Dramaworks’ Twelve Angry Men and the Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s in An Inspector Calls,

He is joined by Helena Ruoti as his loyal long-suffering wife, Linda; Michael Shenefelt as his troubled son searching for his future as an adult, Biff; and Ty Fanning as his son, Happy.

They are supported by a larger cast than most people remember being involved: Nathalie Andrade, Harrison Bryan, John Campagnuolo, William Hayes, Hannah Hayley, Matthew W. Korinko, Tom Wahl and Gracie Winchester.

The scenic design is by Anne Mundell; video design is by Adam J. Thompson, PBD’s newly appointed resident projection designer; costume design is by Brian O’Keefe; lighting design is by Kirk Bookman; and sound design is by Roger Arnold.

(To read our review of the production, go to

Death of a Salesman at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach, extended run through April 20. Call (561) 514-4042;


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