Having recently celebrated their 31st wedding anniversary, Joseph Ziegler and Nancy Palk will play a married couple onstage at Soulpepper for the first time, in the Toronto theatre company's new production of Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller's classic story of how one man's obsession with success tears his family apart.
The Globe and Mail sat down with the veteran actors, who are founding members of the company, to discuss the play's enduring legacy and what audiences can expect from seeing a real-life married couple in the roles of Willy and Linda Loman.
Why has the company decided to stage Death of a Salesman now?
Ziegler: We have been talking about it for a long time. We had planned it earlier seasons, and then something didn't happen or it wasn't right. We feel like we have a really great cast, so that was part of it. Albert [Schultz, Soulpepper's founding artistic director]knows the play really well and he was ready to direct it. We were ready to act in it. It just felt like the time.
Palk: It speaks completely to everybody now.
When you decided to stage the play, did you know from the beginning that you would play Willy and Linda?
Ziegler: Yes, that's part of what we've been talking about for a really long time.
Why do you think the play has managed to stay relevant over the years?
Ziegler: It's so intelligently put together, and it's so thought-provoking.
Death of a Salesman is a wrenching family tragedy. Having raised three kids, does the play make you think about what you've been like as parents?
Ziegler: I think it's natural for parents to say, 'You've just got to work a little bit and you're going to come out on top, you're going to be something.' That's not necessarily true. And I know that we've done that with out kids to a certain extent.
Palk: In the play, there's a lot of pressure on the parents, too, as though the only way a kid is going to get ahead is if we have something to do with that.
How will acting as a married couple together for the first time at Soulpepper inform your performances?
Palk: We acted together a fair bit before our kids were born and then we had to kind of split up because we could never be out of town at the same time and stuff like that. You're wanting that familiarity because, particularly when you're playing intimate relationships, be it mother and son, husband and wife, there's an established relationship there already.
Whenever a married couple acts together, whether onstage or in film, it usually creates the expectation among audiences of an especially interesting dynamic. Has that crossed your minds?
Palk: One of our great mentors is [actor and director]Robin Phillips, and he was on the phone months ago with Joe, and they were talking about Death of Salesman, and he said something about the 'miracle of the ordinary.' Which I love. You're not going to see some amazing relationship between Willy and Linda, but because we've been at it for 31 years, there's nothing that people can't relate to as far as people that have been married for a very long time.
Ziegler: Willy and Linda's marriage isn't perfect, but he's devoted to her and the stage direction says she more than loves him, she admires him and so forth. That's probably not the same at our house. But we're reasonably happily married, so hopefully that will show on the stage [he says, smiling] It also makes it that much easier to be intimate with somebody.
How do you go about building these characters?
Ziegler: The role has to eventually tell you what it needs. The greatest advice I ever got was that one should read the play. And then you keep reading the play over and over and let it speak to you. The other big part is that you have to use who you are, especially in a play as deeply personal as this is.
So how do you think who you are will inform your performances?
Ziegler: I know what it is to have a hard time paying my bills. An actor in a sense is a salesman, or saleswoman, because you have to sell yourself and you're always scrambling in one way or another. And raising sons and what you expect of them and what that life is about, that's just part of who we are.
Palk: I know what it's like to be a woman in a family of boys.
What do you hope audiences take from this production?
Ziegler: If we do the story right, then they can reach their own conclusions about the state of the world, economically speaking or what capitalism means for the individual family. Really, we hope that the audiences will be affected personally by it, that they'll …
Palk: … see themselves in it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Death of a Salesman opens Oct. 21 and runs until Nov. 13 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto.