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'Salesman' role a dream come true for 'Good Wife' star Grenier

| Friday, April 21, 2017, 11:24 a.m.
Zach Grenier and Kathleen McNenny perform during a dress rehearsal for the Public Theater performance of Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman' in Downtown Pittsburgh. April 16, 2017.
John Altdorfer
Zach Grenier and Kathleen McNenny perform during a dress rehearsal for the Public Theater performance of Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman' in Downtown Pittsburgh. April 16, 2017.
Zach Grenier enters the stage as Willy Loman during a dress rehearsal for the Public Theater performance of Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman' in Downtown Pittsburgh. April 16, 2017.
John Altdorfer
Zach Grenier enters the stage as Willy Loman during a dress rehearsal for the Public Theater performance of Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman' in Downtown Pittsburgh. April 16, 2017.
Zach Grenier, Kathleen McNenny, Maxwell Eddy and Alex Mickiewicz perform during a dress rehearsal for the Public Theater performance of Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman' in Downtown Pittsburgh. April 16, 2017.
John Altdorfer
Zach Grenier, Kathleen McNenny, Maxwell Eddy and Alex Mickiewicz perform during a dress rehearsal for the Public Theater performance of Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman' in Downtown Pittsburgh. April 16, 2017.
Zach Grenier, Kathleen McNenny, Maxwell Eddy and Alex Mickiewicz perform during a dress rehearsal for the Public Theater performance of Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman' in Downtown Pittsburgh. April 16, 2017.
John Altdorfer
Zach Grenier, Kathleen McNenny, Maxwell Eddy and Alex Mickiewicz perform during a dress rehearsal for the Public Theater performance of Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman' in Downtown Pittsburgh. April 16, 2017.

Actor Zach Grenier started out on stage — his first love — until he was drawn to L.A. for a variety of roles in television and film.

We know him as lawyer David Lee in “The Good Wife,” as a bug-infested senator in “Brain Dead” and Andy Cramed in “Deadwood,” among dozens of other characters. He returned to theater as time permitted, earning a Tony nomination for 2009's “33 Variations,” among his other Broadway appearances.

With his seven-season commitment to “The Good Wife” having ended, he was sitting around on a January Monday considering what project he wanted to do next.

“My agent said, ‘Now you can do theater.' My wife said, ‘Yes, you can do theater.' And I said, ‘Yes, but you know, I am never going to get to do Willy Loman. I'll never get to do him! I'm running out of time!' “

The next morning, Grenier had a call from his agent:

“ ‘Death of a Salesman.' They're offering Willy Loman.”

“Oh my God. Where?”

“Pittsburgh.”

“Oh my God. That's supposed to be a great theater. Wait. Who's directing?”

“Mary Robinson.”

“Oh my God.”

Grenier claps his hands in the gleeful retelling of his reaction. “I committed within 5 seconds of hearing the offer because I was so excited. It's a prize to do this.”

His long-awaited role of Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” runs April 20 to May 21 at Pittsburgh Public Theater.

“A 63-year-old, slightly overweight daydreamer with a chip on his shoulder?” he says, laughing. “Well, that's me!”

Arthur Miller's story of Willy Loman has had enormous appeal for actors since Lee J. Cobb debuted the role on Broadway in 1949. Loman is a disappointed man whose belief in the American dream — that hard work means success for himself and his sons — is suffocated. Miller's masterpiece won both a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize.

“First of all, the play rivals Shakespeare in its beauty and its form and its language,” Grenier says. “I tell people it's Brooklyn Shakespeare, but it's Shakespeare. It's not Shakespeare poetry, but boy, it's poetry!”

The work comes with many challenges — “There's a lot of lines, you know,” he jokes — but such a payoff in the end.

“It's scary, but it's wonderful. It's a huge, huge piece in what it says socially and so complex,” he says. “It has such depth.”

Grenier had worked with Robinson previously and has the utmost respect for her talent.

“She is one of my favorite stage directors,” he says. “She's just extraordinary, so smart and perceptive. She knows how to put a play together. She also knows how to cast, and she was able to find these people who seem to have come out of heaven to do this play.”

Working in the O'Reilly Theater is another appeal for Grenier. The beautiful craftsmanship of the woodwork, the curves, the acoustics are an added allure for this former carpenter. “It really is an extraordinary thing,” he says. “Somebody said it looks like the inside of a cello.”

But the live stage experience is a joy all by itself.

“There is nothing like communing with an audience,” he says. “We're doing the work now, but I guarantee after our previews, we are going to know the play much better because the audience is going to teach us the play.”

The intimate relationship between actors and the audience is missing when filming a performance.

“It's not even something an audience realizes they do,” he says. “There is an energy, a focus. You can tell whether an audience is focused or not with your performance. And you can naturally find a way to tell the story. That's really our job. We are storytellers with our bodies and our voices and our emotions.”

Sally Quinn is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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