Stage preview: 'Good Wife's' Zach Grenier tackles Willy Loman for Pittsburgh Public Theater
April 19, 2017 12:00 AM
Actor Zach Grenier plays traveling salesman Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's classic "Death of a Salesman" at the O'Reilly Theater, presented by Pittsburgh Public Theater.
Actor Zach Grenier, right, plays traveling salesman Willy Loman with Maxwell Eddy, left, and Alex Mickiewicz as his adult sons Happy and Biff, respectively. The actors perform Arthur Miller's classic "Death of a Salesman" at the O'Reilly Theater, presented by Pittsburgh Public Theater.
Actor Zach Grenier plays traveling salesman Willy Loman beside Kathleen McNenny as his devoted wife in Arthur Miller's classic "Death of a Salesman" at the O'Reilly Theater, presented by Pittsburgh Public Theater.
By Sharon Eberson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Zach Grenier is so eager to share how he wound up in Pittsburgh, he begins to answer with the word “How ...” barely hanging in the air. The star of “The Good Wife,” who played divorce lawyer David Lee for seven seasons, is sitting in a conference room — his usual habitat on the CBS series, now in the O’Reilly Theater — and talking about playing Willy Loman for Pittsburgh Public Theater’s “Death of a Salesman.”
‘Death of a Salesman’
Where: Pittsburgh Public Theater at the O’Reilly Theater, Downtown.
When: Previews Thursday through April 27; regular run April 28-May 21. 7 p.m. Tuesday, 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday (plus 2 p.m. May 18), 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday (check ppt.org for exceptions) and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday (final show is 2 p.m. May 21).
Tickets: $30-$66; $15.75 for students and 26 and younger; 412-316-1600 or ppt.org.
“Well let me tell you,” he says. It was a Monday in January, and he was just home in New Jersey after filming an episode of “Chicago P.D.”
“My wife and I were having breakfast. And we got to talking about what’s next. ‘The Good Wife’s’ over … so I’m free, and of course I want to do some theater. And she said, ‘We won’t go back to L.A.; we’ll see what happens.’ And I said, ‘You know, really’ — and I’m not lying about this — ‘What I really want to do is play Willy Loman.’ ”
Mr. Grenier, who at 63 is the same age as Willy in the play, notes that Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” was on Broadway in a Tony-winning 2012 revival that starred the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, making it unlikely that it would return to New York anytime soon. But as luck would have it …
“The next morning,” Mr. Grenier continues, “I get a call saying, ‘Do you want to play Willy Loman?’ And then I said, ‘Who’s directing?’ and they said, ‘Mary Robinson,’ and I said, ‘Yes!’ ”
His agent was less sure — Mr. Grenier has had high-profile roles on “24” and “Deadwood,” among other TV series, and this was a time most actors would be gearing up for TV pilot season and not a trip to Pittsburgh.
“I said, ‘Yeah, great, good for them,’ ” and he laughs at the recollection.
Since arriving here, the director and cast have been in intense preparation for the play that became an instant classic when it debuted in 1949 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The Public previously mounted “Death of a Salesman” in 1980, with John Carpenter as Willy Loman.
Director Mary Robinson (“Freud’s Last Session” for the Public) and Mr. Grenier previously worked together 25 years ago, on a production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Moon for the Misbegotten.”
“We cast Zach as James Tyrone, which is another mountain, not quite Willy Loman,” Ms. Robinson recalls. “There’s darkness and humor -— it’s an enormous role, and we had the best time working on it together. Zach was so extraordinary, and the collaboration was so positive and fruitful.”
Few roles can compare to that of Willy Loman. The traveling salesman becomes suicidal after being pushed aside despite 34 years with the same company. To cope, Willy has created a fantasy world — Mr. Miller’s original title for the play was “Inside of His Head” -— but his oldest son, Biff, wants him to face the truth. Wife Linda utters perhaps the play’s most famous line, saying of the ultimate working class Everyman: “Attention must be paid.” But the father-son dynamic is the emotional backbone of the play.
“The other reason I wanted to do this play is the unresolved relationship I had with my father. … I can’t talk too much about it because I’ll get too emotional,” Mr. Grenier says. He reveals that his father was “a difficult man, but we both loved each other very much,” and that, after accepting the role, he took a drive from his home in New Jersey to York, where his father is buried.
Mr. Grenier is enthusiastic to talk about his sons in the play — Alex Mickiewicz as Biff and Maxwell Eddy as Happy.
“To find two young men with such depth to them is extraordinary,” he says.
Kathleen McNenny, who plays Willy’s wife, Linda, was one of the many stage actors to have guest starred on “The Good Wife.”
The TV series was shot in New York and often featured stars of the Broadway stage. He recalls days when F. Murray Abraham and Nathan Lane were on set, and the joy of working “with the great Christine Baranski.” The actor, who returned as David Lee in the pilot of the CBS All Access spinoff “The Good Fight,” has a Tony nomination for playing Ludwig von Beethoven in “33 Variations” opposite Jane Fonda and has had roles in movies as diverse as “Fight Club” and “Twister.”
“You work for decades and decades on the stage, TV and film, working with people like Ang Lee and David Fincher, and then you are remembered for a particular character — which is wonderful — but it would be unfortunate for someone to think they are coming to see David Lee’s version of Willy Loman,” he says.
Mr. Grenier also worries that our conversation has not begun to scratch the surface of “Death of a Salesman,” which he has been living and breathing since January. He likens this experience to the hours he spent preparing to play Beethoven and listening to his music.
“Those are masterpieces, and this is a masterpiece,” Mr. Grenier said. “It’s an extraordinary piece of literature.”
Sharon Eberson: email@example.com or 412-263-1960. Twitter: @SEberson_pg.
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