A PRINCE among regional theaters, the Guthrie continues to inspire awe because of its highly developed purpose, its artistic integrity, and its common touch. Audiences at the Guthrie appear to have a proprietary regard for it. And it's no wonder. Artistic director Garland Wright studiously designs his season and his outreach programs to stimulate a sense of community among the actors and audience alike.That sense of community is palpable. It contributes depth to the three plays now in repertory at the Guthrie: the scathing (if balsa-weight) comedy, "The Man Who Came to Dinner" by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, Arthur Miller's tragic "Death of a Salesman," and Pierre Corneille's 17th-century phantasmagorical homage to the theater, "The Illusion." The casting is what Mr. Wright dubs "nontraditional." "Theater flourishes where it has a connection to its population and where it receives support," Wright said in an interview recently. "It's a social phenomenon as well as an artistic one." He speaks quietly, carefully, choosing his words as if each might break or discolor his true thoughts. "I believe what makes great theater is specific as opposed to generic. This is a classical theater." Wright selects plays for timeless themes and resonances, he explains, and most have withstood the test of time. But he's also committed to American plays too new to be called classics, and to the classics of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Tracing connections Wright is attempting to make a community, to find connections among cultures. One important manifestation of this impulse toward community at the Guthrie is Wright's dedication to nontraditional casting: He casts people of color in roles typically played by Caucasians. Nontraditional casting is not, he says, identical with so-called color-blind casting, where roles are assigned without regard to color (e.g., a family may be composed of a black father, a white mother, an Asian daughter, and a Hispanic son ). Some theaters do color-blind casting as a way to overcome stereotypes and serve heterogeneous communities. But color-blind casting seldom makes sociological sense. It can distract the viewer from the event, frustrating the necessary suspension of disbelief. Sometimes it works and audiences accept it, but often it interferes with the meaning of a play. "It started many years ago with what I believe has come to be highly suspect motivation," says Wright. "It started out as a belief that differences don't matter - that there wasn't any difference. We're all alike under the surface and if you could look past that you'd be able to reenvision an ideal world. But over the years it's become clear that that's just a way to avoid the issue." Wright says there are genuine differences between people and cultures. "This is a very difficult struggle and a very long process at the expense of those who [are discriminated against]. I find the subject painful and difficult and confusing, and I think anyone who doesn't just hasn't thought long enough or explored what is going on." Wright says that finally there is no such thing as color-blind casting. He points out that we don't live in a color-blind society. His company is racially mixed and he went through a period of color-blind casting. "I began to think that you only erase people in a new way. You can erase them by not hiring them, by not giving them opportunities, you can erase them by saying 'Don't look at the difference, let's all learn to talk the same and erase what you sound like, then you deny one of their chief assets .... So we struggle to find ways to allow people to be the way they are...."
Cultural fascism Nontraditional casting makes sociological sense, argues Wright, and can contribute to a play's meaning. Thus, the Guthrie's 17th-century French farce casts black actors in the key roles as father and son in "The Illusion," and casts black actors as the Loman family in "Death of a Salesman." Some critics of nontraditional casting feel that using black actors in "Salesman," for example, was somehow a betrayal of "the black experience as if there was only one way for a black family to experience life in the United States. Since there is no mention of race per se, no denunciation of the white establishment, those critics brush "Salesman" aside as irrelevant. Such "politically correct" criticism can be considered a type of cultural fascism that ultimately limits people of color. Says black actor Mel Winkler, who plays Willy Loman in "Salesman,They want to define for themselves what the black experience is. If it's not some big [conflict] between blacks, or a struggle because the white men are bothering them, then it is not the black experience. They fail to see how myopic, how parochial, how confined their thought is." Isabell Monk, who portrays Linda Loman, talks about growing up in a middle-class family in Washington, D. C. without race hatred. She points out that there were plenty of black professionals, including salesmen, at the time the play was written and before that. The situation of the play could have happened in a black family, a white Protestant family, or a Jewish family. "My father and mother never blamed a white person for anything when things went wrong...." Mr. Winkler says "It's hard for some people to believe that all black people don't see [racism] as the main problem of survival. It's definitely a problem in some venues. But there are other roadblocks."
Humane impulses Wright says that the different facets that nontraditional casting affords "Salesman" makes certain ideas pop out without changing the meaning of the play. "The play is chiefly about those people we discard...," says Wright. "It would have been fascinating to see Miller's production in China.... It's really a mythological play about someone who has to shout for attention." "Willy has bought wrongly into the American dream," says Winkler. "Salesman" director Sheldon Epps says: "Linda Loman speaks for the kind of values we should be looking for. The heart and soul of a man, rather than the appearance, are what make him a success. One should be given respect for the kind of person one is, rather than what one can achieve in a material way. "I have seen nontraditional casting take plays in a direction not intended by the playwright, and it can be confusing," Mr. Epps says. "But in this play the ideas resonate more clearly because the Loman family is black." Nontraditional casting in "Salesman" deepens the play because our expectations are jolted. The warmth of this production helps us to understand how wrong Willy was and how defeating materialism is. The deeply humane impulse at work at the Guthrie fosters not only an expanded and intelligent use of nontraditional casting, but also a philosophy like Epp's toward the purpose of the theater: "One of the joys in the theater is that it is a place to celebrate the human spirit. It does this in two ways. First, it can be a place to discover the boundless possibilities of the spirit. And second, the theater can be a place to warn us of the tragedy when that spirit is constantly defeated and denied." * The Guthrie's current season concludes Sept. 8.