When Arthur Miller wrote his most lauded and successful play, “Death of a Salesman,” which opened 70 years ago, he said he wanted to write something that transcended time and place and was universal in its appeal.
Clearly, he accomplished his goal and much more earning a Pulitzer Prize for his classic tale that forces us to examine what it means to succeed and the cost that comes when we chase the American Dream.
Now, Ford’s Theatre Society in northwest D.C. brings a new casting of the powerful play to the stage once more — this time with Howard University graduate and former standout with the District’s highly-celebrated Shakespeare Theatre Company, Craig Wallace assuming the lead as Willy Loman — a father, husband and traveling salesman who, for 24 hours, reflects on his life, the unfulfilled optimism of his youth and the many dreams he failed to achieve.
Directed by Stephen Rayne, the play runs through Oct. 22 and is a “tour-de-force” — the kind of production that viewers will remember and talk about for years to come.
Wallace, cast in a role traditionally given to a seasoned white actor, said he approached the role the way he’s done throughout his career — making sure that the character becomes one unique to his own personality and idiosyncrasies.
“The producers wanted to cultivate an audience that would appreciate diversity — a reflection of the audience itself,” Wallace said. “One way to do that is to invite them into the theatre and let them see people who look like them on stage. And while Willy Loman may be a well-known character in contemporary theater, this Willie is ‘mine.’ No one has done it like I’m doing it. That’s the way I approach every character I’ve ever portrayed — from Louis Armstrong to Othello.”
Wallace remembers his earlier dreams of becoming a DJ — something he worked hard at both in high school and college. But then, something happened that changed the trajectory of his life.
“I always loved music and I still do,” he said. “But somehow I found myself in a play and completely fell in love with it. I never looked back. I’m not sure what I’d do if I were not an actor — maybe something in politics which has always fascinated me, perhaps at the local level. But this is what I do and who I am — an actor. And it requires a real team effort.”
Wallace points to the contributions and skills of the entire cast of “Death of a Salesman” including the dramaturg, director and assistant director in making this production one of the best ever. But he also recognizes his responsibilities.
“I had to become as familiar with my character as possible so when we all came to the table I had my own perspective but could also be open to what others have found important as we collectively built the characters,” he said. “I’m pleased and proud at what we’ve achieved.”
Wallace, who has made a name for himself as an interpreter of some of Shakespeare’s most provocative and memorable characters, found it difficult to identify one role that he would list as his favorite. But he did have an interesting response to the question.
“There are a few roles I’d like another chance at one day but I don’t have a favorite,” he said. “I think as you get older and gain more professional experience, you look at roles differently and see how you might change the way you become a particular character on stage. I’m blessed to have the chance to become Willy Loman for this production and I’m using every moment to put my stamp on this character and share the words and feelings that I believe Arthur Miller hoped for when he first penned this amazing play.”
For more information, go to www.fords.org.