Somewhere in Key Biscayne, FL, one of America's most distinguished actors began to prepare his dinner. His character's trademark suitcases waiting backstage at the theatre for the evening's performance, when it is time again for them to be lifted, carried and unpacked, at least metaphoricallù, by Hal Holbrook.
The suitcases belong to Willy Loman and are heavy with lessons and insights that audiences have been struggling to grasp since 1949 when Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller's Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning play, opened on Broadway. Wrapping one's mind around Willy's tragic yet not uncommon experiences demands much of an actor: depth, acute sensitivity and a willingness to confront the meaning of the American dream. An actor should (always a dangerous word)--must--take an honest and fearless approach in facing the dream, for perhaps it is not a dream at all. The unattainable often feels more like a nightmare.
We spoke between shows and I feared a brief conversation, respecting the importance of voice conservation. Instead I was greeted on the other end of the phone with exuberance and energy. Holbrook was surprised at how well his voice was faring. I recommended a powerful throat lozenge I'm fond of and was appropriately admonished. "No throat lozenge will help you if you don't use your voice properly, it won't mean a damn thing. It's called 'craft,' not a throat lozenge. When you take on a heavy role, if you don't have the craft, you blow it."
His brilliant and award-filled career stands in testament to the years spent developing his craft and his voice spoke with the confidence and knowledge only experience bestows. Tony, Obie, Drama and Outer Critic's Circle, Peabody, Ace, Vernon Rice and 5 Emmy awards later, he is proudly leading a new cast of Death of a Salesman on a tour of the U.S. that will take him to Boston, Texas, Colorado and California.
"It has been an extraordinary experience. I'm [working with] a very fine cast. Matt Mulhern, a good 'ol Irishman, has brought a lot of danger to the role [of Biff], and John [Speredakos], well, he just is 'Happy.'" He praised his co-star Obie-winner Elizabeth Franz, whose face theatregoers will recognize from stage and screen, and with his voice reflecting his heart, he described the experience of performing for the first time with his daughter, Eve (as Miss Forsythe). "It has been wonderful for the two of us." He is divorced from Eve's mother since his daughter was a teenager. They "visited but hadn't lived together enough. Now she's a colleague, a member of the company, my daughter . . . I admire her so much, always have since she was a little baby." It became clear as we spoke that the essence of Hal Holbrook has melded with the essence of Willy Loman and from that sensitive and vulnerable place, they emerge as one, both teacher and student. Holbrook began his career researching, performing and traveling the country in his one-man show, Mark Twain Tonight! Immersed in his character through years of study, Holbrook discovered a capacity to connect with his subject, and, in the case of Twain and as Abraham Lincoln in television's "Sandburg's Lincoln," physically brought them back to life.
Willy Loman may be fictitious but he is seen as an Everyman, someone with as much to teach as Twain or Lincoln. English and drama classes have been studying Willy Loman since 1949 yet there is as much to garner now in 1996 then ever before. Why is it more relevant today?
"Because of history. It's astonishing. What it says about America, boy, it's so eloquent, so sobering. Willy Loman has bought the American dream, all the good things. He embodies all the great things about the American person but he misunderstands and his misunderstanding has been carried forward over the last half century. [It] stares you right in the face. This is us. We bought the surface and left out the guts. We're a culture of me-me-me."
This reality, however harsh, promotes awareness and education. Holbrook's classroom is the theatre. "I've had the same feeling about theatre since I left school. I was driven to do the best I could because it's important, tremendously important, and more and more unique as years go by."
Especially in a country where there is not enough emphasis placed on education. "Where is education on the list of important issues? Doing Willy Loman has forced me to think about who I am. The roles have taught me. The actor is like a student. If you play Abe, Twain and then Willy Loman you can trace the American character and the American dream. The dream runs through young Abe into Mark Twain and his wonderful feeling about America."
He sighed as he recalled the original production of Death of a Salesman, "It was so magnificent. It knocked me for a loop." I admit I have yet to see the play and am advised, "prepare yourself and bring a towel."
Portraying a character so beautifully detached from reality, in front of audiences sometimes as equally detached, requires skill and resilience only a gifted actor is capable of; one committed to the message and its messenger. "Willy Loman. God, that character is-- oh boy, I've grown to love this man. He's not a mean man. He just doesn't get it! He's so impossible...it's really fun to play him."
As I listened, I watched an angry rain fall through light thrown from a Boston streetlamp, moved by the integrity of his emotion. His earnestness, intensified by the rainfall against the windows and the cry of a coastal wind, left me without words. "I'm on a ship that's in danger," he stressed. "I've got to keep this ship going 'til I die. It carries a cargo of gold. I'm proud of working in the theatre. It's just the way I feel."
His voice, touched at times by a Southern softness and humility, belied his age by many years and I imagined a boyish grin with each honest outburst. "I'm a man of 70 years. By the time I get to Boston I'll be 71 years old. I live like a monk [when on the road]. I eat well, I swim, I live like an athlete, you have to."
And the excitement of returning to Boston is an energy source all its own. "I can't tell you how thrilled I am. To play Willy Loman at The Colonial Theatre, it's like somebody handed you a gift."
It's also a chance to connect with childhood memories of growing up in nearby South Weymouth with his grandparents. There's even the likelihood that Holbrook family ancestors were part-owners of The Mayflower and trod the shores of the eastern seaboard. In many ways, Holbrook is returning home, this time with his daughter, who shares his journey and his stage.
I left Holbrook to enjoy his dinner, a Key Biscayne sky and the quiet before his evening return to the theatre. The fluorescents above my desk felt brighter and hotter as I hung up the phone, in anticipation of struggling with my lines, trying to capture this man on paper. Perhaps, drawing inspiration from Miller, I'd capture the profound simplicity of a warm and decent man who shares far more than he's aware.
Death of a Salesman opens at The Colonial Theatre on February 20 for one week only. Call (617) 426-9366 for information.
* Feb. 27-March 3, Will Rogers Auditorium, Ft. Worth, TX
* March 5-24, Auditorium Theatre, Denver, CO
* March 26-31, Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, Cerritos, CA.