There are certain actors who, if their careers last long enough, find themselves in the throes of a specific pantheon of roles when reaching a certain age. Characters like Hamlet and King Lear are only reserved for actors who reach a certain level in their development. The same goes for roles like Roy Cohn in “Angels in America,” Troy in “Fences” or Vanya in “Uncle Vanya.”
Randall King is taking on one of those roles in a big way. San Jose Stage’s newest production, Arthur Miller’s tragic masterpiece “Death of a Salesman,” opens Saturday, April 4th, the recipient of 1949’s Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Tony Award for best play .
After many years of, as King says, playing “heavies,” he’s taking on the role of Willy Loman, an iconic challenge for any actor at any level.
Willy is coming upon the end of his career, a salesman who travels far and wide peddling a product never discussed in the text. While struggling to stay relevant amongst those who are younger, move quicker and can travel further, Willy experiences crisis after crisis. Whether it’s putting a blind eye towards the abject failures of his sons Biff and Happy, dealing with demons in his past or struggling to stay relevant in a young man’s game, Miller’s play is a deconstruction of the American dream, the hell that blind ambition can bring.
King is certainly not intimidated by the gargantuan task of Willy’s arc. It’s something that is catching him at the perfect time in his life and career, and he is certainly thrilled for the challenge.
“I’m amazed by the timelessness of the play, and it’s important to do the play because of its greatness,” said King, who is also the Stage’s artistic director.
The play is deeply rooted in examining the economics of our nation, with Willy’s ups and downs going hand in hand with the pursuit of the almighty dollar. The play looks deeply into what it means to have a compromised moral core.
“Arthur Miller said, ‘To reach the American dream is to mean some compromise of your morals,’” said King. “It seems to me at this point, the polarization of our country stems from a lot of corruption and moral dysfunction. Even Willy’s sons are a byproduct of his moral discrepancy.”
One of King’s thrills is looking at the play as a whole and grasping the fact that it is on another level in the illustrious history of theatre. He compares the play to Pablo Picasso’s epic masterpiece “Guernica,” a painting that looked at the devastation of war, a creation that speaks greatly to Picasso’s legacy.
“It stands among those classics, those great plays in the thousands of years of theatre,” said King. “The biggest struggle I have is grasping the scope of this mural that is ‘Death of a Salesman.’ The more I look at every stroke in this painting that Miller put in, every tiny dot, every question, every structure of each sentence and how he worked so hard to make the play accessible, I have so much more of an appreciation for his work.”
Like many actors who hope to one day play Willy, King waited patiently for the right time for his company to tackle this iconic piece. And now that it is here in his hands, he is treating it with the utmost respect.
“I have wanted to play Willy for many years, and by the time we got the rights and were afforded the opportunity, I was Willy’s age, which has allowed me to understand better the scope that is Willy Loman,” said King.
For him, his approach to creating that truth is rooted in the text of the play.
“I am constantly in the book,” said King. “This play is a mural that never lets up, and the more you read, you begin to realize more of Miller’s perspective and how brilliant the man was.”
King is constantly working to sharpen elements of Willy’s arc – unbridled joy, frustration, insecurity, sorrow and devastation, to name a few. The role is incredibly wide-ranging. Yet there is so much more to the play than just what Willy goes through. To that end, King has enjoyed the collaboration with the rest of the cast and director Ken Kelleher.
“Ken and I know each other’s capabilities, and he is as relentless as anybody to bring this show to beautiful fruition. I am comforted in knowing he is more or even more relentless than I am.”
King understands clearly that a company announcing a season including “Death of a Salesman” cannot have any reservations about the production’s potential. Anything short of brilliant can and should be considered a lost opportunity. And King is supremely confident in all those who are part of this collaboration.
“This is a play you don’t want to fail with,” said King. “This play is like a Mt. Everest climb, and there are a lot of people helping me to the top.”
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
San Jose Stage Company presents “Death of a Salesman”
Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Ken Kelleher
April 4th – 26th
San Jose Stage Company
490 S. First Street
San Jose, CA
Tickets range from $20 – $65
For tickets, call (408) 283-7142 or visit www.thestage.org