It’s hard to believe 30 years have passed since “Northern Exposure” first hit the airwaves, especially when Rob Morrow looks as young today as he did then, portraying Dr. Joel Fleischman, the New York doctor consigned to Alaska’s backwoods. Some will recognize him as an FBI agent on “Numb3rs,” or more recently, from “Billions” on Showtime, where he portrays a corruptible judge. If you’re really lucky, you’ll remember him from “Street Time,” a show that was far ahead of its time but, for reasons unknown, has not made its way onto a streaming platform. “I’ve talked to everyone at Sony about it,” Morrow said, in a recent interview, “and I just can’t get an answer about why.”
With a lifetime of acting, directing and producing behind him, Morrow now takes on the heavy mantle of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning classic American drama, “Death of a Salesman” opening Friday, June 21 at the Ruskin Group Theatre (RGT) at Santa Monica Airport.
Why Willy? “I feel like I have enough miles and the weight of enough life experience to take on this role now,” Morrow said. Already involved with RGT as a master class teacher, when Morrow’s wife read that the theatre was casting “Death of a Salesman,” she said he should try out. “I have a rule that I try not to say no, because I’ve turned down things in my life that I probably shouldn’t have, so I tend to say yes, until I have to say no.”
Another actor was being considered but his situation was uncertain. “I was actually hoping that they’d tell me they’re going ahead with the other guy, so I could say, ‘Oh well, I can’t do it.’ Because this role is a bear, it’s a mountain, it’s probably the hardest part I’ve ever done.”
Why now? “I don’t know if I’ll ever be offered this part again,” Morrow continued. “I’ve been hunting around for something to do that challenges me, that really puts me on my heels and makes me rise to it. Most of what I do is fixing; acting, directing, producing, making it better, taking away, adding, rewriting. And a lot of the parts I get are two-dimensional characters defined by their occupation; I feel like a racehorse sometimes, just put the words in my mouth and let me run.
“But ‘Death of a Salesman’ needs no fixing; it’s a flawless masterpiece, so I don’t need to spend bandwidth on what will make it work; I have to rise to it.”
The play tells the story of Willy Loman, a salesman who’s on the road more than he’s home with his wife and sons, and he’s cheated on his wife. He’s not a good salesman, and he’s not making ends meet, but he’s too proud to accept help from a better-established friend or his own brother. His sons have disappointed him, and he, them; he feels he needs to keep up appearances, but he’s worried about keeping up the house and home appliance payments.
Morrow’s portrayal of Willy is informed by his own life. “My dad was a salesman and I went on rounds with him, so I kind of got the sense of what it’s about. I watched how he’d do his thing, make little gifts to give the secretaries, pens or watches or lifesavers with his name on them.
“But selling is what I do all the time; I’m a producer, I develop an inordinate amount of material compared to what gets made, and the selling, the pitching, being rejected, or selling it then pushing it through development, all that wears you down and beats you up in a way that I can understand.”
Morrow is sympathetic to Willy. “I wouldn’t want to be married to the guy,” he said, “but I feel his pain. He’s struggling to provide something of meaning and value to his family, but he’s not a perfect soul, he’s on the road and he’s a philanderer. It’s like what they say about NBA players, the biggest smile on their faces is when they kiss their wives goodbye.
“And yet that doesn’t negate him. Willy is tragic, he epitomizes a strain of American ambition, and the shadow side of capitalism, the male ego and how it’s tied into achievement and being seen as a success.” While the American dream slips out of his grasp, Willy continues to believe the illusion he’s on the verge of a big break.
“He’s truly flawed,” says Morrow, “but as his wife tells their son, he’s a decent man, his name was never in the paper, but attention must be paid to such a person. There’s something in that, the everyday work that people need to do to get by. And the way we as a culture dismiss and discard the elderly moves me, pains me. Playing him, I feel, gives dignity to a lot of men in this world.”
Morrow also appreciates that the play is being staged in a small theatre. “It’s not a giant play and staging it here has taken some ingenuity. The great thing is that it affords intimacy, so I don’t have to exert that much energy to be heard. I can almost do film acting in places where the play is at its most intimate.”
He’s no stranger to small theatre: he’s a member of Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York, and co-founded Naked Angels, which was notable for producing plays on controversial issues by the likes of Jon Robin Baitz, Kenneth Lonergan, Joe Mantello, Nancy Travis and Marisa Tomei, including works that moved on to Broadway and earned award nominations.
Morrow stars in “Death of a Salesman,” Friday, June 21 through August 4, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm; Sundays at 2. The Ruskin Group Theatre is located at 3000 Airport Avenue; tickets ($25-35) can be purchased by phone at 310 397-3244 or online at www.ruskingrouptheatre.com. Parking is free.