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American dreamers

Gunn staff, students and alumni bring new life to 'Death of a Salesman'

Arthur Miller's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Death of a Salesman," about the dark side of the American dream, is frequently taught in high school English classes, local ones included. Palo Alto Players' new version of the theater classic boasts many Gunn High School connections in the cast and crew: six current and former teachers, three students, a choreographer and several alumni, plus a teacher at Terman Middle School. Their experiences with the play at Gunn led to this production's creation.

Tim Farrell, who stars as anti-hero Willy Loman, is a retired English and drama teacher. Paul Dunlap plays the role of Willy's son, Biff. Dunlap is a teacher at Gunn as well. He brings Farrell in to classes as a guest when teaching "Salesman," and together they act out scenes for students. Director and fellow teacher Kristen Lo, another former pupil who runs a Broadway workshop at Gunn, saw their success with the play in the classroom and convinced Palo Alto Players' artistic director, Patrick Klein, that they should bring the play to the stage in a full-fledged production.

"We tried kind of a scene study and it went really well. I thought, these two have been teaching this play for a combined 75 years, probably. They would bring not only their acting ability but also a literary perspective," Lo said.

Because of the demands of their day jobs, the cast rehearsed mainly during summer vacation. While Lo has worked with Palo Alto Players before, as well as with the Dragon and Pear theater companies, among others, Farrell and Dunlap are relative newcomers to community theater.

"It's thrilling and exciting. I'd love to do more," Dunlap said.

In "Salesman," Farrell's character, Willy, has been working for decades to provide a decent, middle-class life for his wife and two children. Nearing what should be retirement age, he finds himself clinging to his traveling-salesman job by a thread, disrespected by his young new boss. He also tries desperately to control his beloved elder son.

"Willy Loman is the original helicopter parent," Lo said.

"He's the great dreamer: the man who commits himself to the dream of being a salesman and, although he's essentially a failure, never gives up on that dream," Farrell said. "You don't have to like Willy Loman, but you do have to care about him."

While Willy puts a premium on keeping up appearances and grasping for greatness, his son Biff leans toward a different life, out of the rat race.

Biff is "deeply conflicted between following his father's dream and what he wants for himself. He thinks, 'I don't know what I'm supposed to want,' which is so different from a dad who knows exactly what he wants," Dunlap said. He said that while adults may relate to Willy, his high school students are often moved by Biff's anguish.

"When they see that struggle of the son living for his parents' wishes -- especially with seniors, because they're at a decision point -- they wonder, 'Am I living my own dream or am I living theirs?' They really relate to that."

Despite the play's 1939 and 1948 settings, it still rings true today. Farrell said it's especially relevant in an area such as Palo Alto, where students feel pressure to succeed academically from high-achieving parents, many of whom have struggled and sacrificed to support their families in such an expensive area.

"It's almost timeless, the war between the young and the old. There's always going to be a clash," Dunlap said.

Farrell said Willy's slow descent out of middle-class comfort is perhaps even more applicable to today's American economy than to the relatively prosperous 1940s in which it was written, with corporate CEOs becoming more wealthy while workers end up with less. Lo agreed.

"Look at the Bay Area's gentrification and what's happening in San Francisco. The middle class is getting pushed further out," she said, also drawing a comparison with recent development booms to Willy's wistful nostalgia for when green trees surrounded his Brooklyn home rather than apartment buildings.

Their Gunn students have expressed interest in attending a performance, especially those who've studied it in class.

"It's enriching their experience, seeing it staged," Lo said.

And with so many years of teaching experience between him and Farrell, Dunlap joked, "If even one in every generation of students came, that's a success."

He's honored, he said, "to be able to work on a play that I love so much with people I care about and giving students a glimpse of that."

The rapport between the three is apparent. At interview's end, they return to their enthusiastic discussion of blocking scenes (and where to pick up lunch).

"There's a lot of love in this play," Lo said, turning to her two stars. "Everybody cares so much about each other, and with the script and your guys' acting I feel like my job has been easy."

What: Palo Alto Players' "Death of a Salesman"

Where: Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: Jan. 16-31

Cost: $29-$43

Info: Go to Palo Alto Players

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