Communication arts professor Darrell Mullins played the leading role of Willy Loman in the Community Players of Salisbury production of Arthur Miller’s 1949 play “Death of a Salesman,” directed by Matt Bogden.
“Death of a Salesman” is about the existential crisis of Willy Loman, a traveling salesman who loses his job over the course of the play.
Mullins, a longtime community theatre actor, was drawn to the role because of the opportunity it afforded him to act in a serious drama. Most of his previous roles were in comedies or musical comedies.
He had not played a role in this vein since his college performance in Tennessee Williams’ family drama “Summer and Smoke” and a small role in “Les Blancs,” a play about colonialism in Africa.
Mullins described playing Willy as quite the challenge.
Willy is on stage most of the play, and his lines present a challenge as they often have nothing to do with the other characters’ dialogue, such as when his wife Linda (played by Robin Mandelson) says “Willie dear, you have to rest,” and Willy’s response is “is there any cheese?”
Mullins described the often erratic dialogue as hard to memorize, especially with the lack of directly related cues from his fellow actors.
The length of the Willy’s lines was another challenge, as the character’s interjected stories often ran for multiple pages of the script.
Playing the intense role required a tremendous amount of effort from Mullins.
“He’s delusional, and he’s well intentioned, but he’s flawed…there’s a lot of things to not like about him,” Mullins said. “Literally every night after rehearsal or a performance I had to almost limp to my car I was so physically drained because of the adrenaline you have to put out to play a role like that.”
Mullins used the method acting approach to play Willy Loman, drawing from his own life experiences to bring them into the performance. In one scene when Willy and his wife are arguing about bills, Mullins recalled his own similar experiences.
“Thinking about that before I would do that scene kind of gets you emotionally ready,” he said.
He described his fellow cast members as phenomenal, helping him achieve what he set out to do portraying Willy.
“That was crucial in this show,” he said.
While the cast cooperation is critical in any production, Mullins said that the camaraderie of the cast was crucial for “Death of a Salesman,” particularly since he wanted to bring out the more sympathetic aspects of his character.
“My goal, I wanted the audience to feel sorry for Willy, and that was a tough challenge,” Mullins said, citing Willy’s affair, lying about money, and neglect of his younger son, Harold “Happy” Loman.
This was where the other cast members helped.
Mullins praised the way the other characters responded to his version of Willy as helpful to what he wanted to bring out of his role. At the same time, Mullins did not want to change the character as written.
“I didn’t want to be misleading about the negative characteristics. They’re very clear,” he said.
One line of dialogue spoken by Willy’s wife, Linda Loman, inspired Mullins to take this more sympathetic approach. One scene shows Linda chastising her sons for looking at Willy like a “bum,” yet she sees goodness in her flawed husband.
“When I read that line—it wasn’t my line it was her line—I thought, how do I get the audience to see that?” Mullins said.
Willy makes a sacrifice for his family, committing suicide so that they may get insurance money, allowing his wife to finally pay off the mortgage on their house.
Mullins believes the play still enjoys popularity because it continues to resonate with contemporary audiences.
Out of about 200 seats at the Wor-Wic Community College assembly hall, the production’s smallest crowd was 140 people.
The play’s author, Arthur Miller, believed the “American dream” of hard work to turn into success to be a myth. Willy Loman works as hard as he can, yet does not find success.
“It’s post-World War II when this is set, so at that time the country was jubilant, the war was over, we won…everybody was so, so happy,” Mullins said.
Mullins said the play’s examination of the American dream is what makes the play relevant even today.
“That dream was not accessible to everybody,” he said. “And I think we’re seeing that today as much as any point in our history.”
By SAMUEL STEVENS
Featured photo: DelmarvaNow image.