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Dramatic Effect

The director Robert Falls made his name putting on groundbreaking shows that examine the psychological wreckage of tortured souls. Now, celebrating 20 years with the Goodman Theatre and settled into fatherhood, he is tackling the story of one of the most tormented fathers ever

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Photography: Left Eric Y. Exit

Brian Dennehy with Kevin Anderson and Ted Koch in Death of a Salesman in 1998

Falls’s tenure began with his 1986 production of Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo. “That launched his career,” says Christiansen, who retired from the Tribune in 2002, “and the show itself was a calling-card production, saying this is what we can do here at Goodman Theatre.”

In those early, heady days, Falls promised “a new era,” with cutting-edge work and more musicals. His second season brought Pal Joey, which Falls calls “one of the more radical choices I’ve ever made.” The 1940 work was “so dark,” with “a cad as a central character” and “dialogue and lyrics [that] were cynical and biting and satiric.” An even edgier choice came in 1994, with Peter Sellars’s direction of The Merchant of Venice. Critics liked it; audiences left in droves, Falls admits. Still, he calls the show “one of [his] proudest moments at the Goodman.”

Falls developed a fruitful partnership with the actor Brian Dennehy, and the two rocketed to success with three Eugene O’Neill plays-most notably Long Day’s Journey into Night in 2002, which went on to New York-and Arthur Miller’s classic Death of a Salesman, which played to raves at the Goodman in 1998 before moving to New York and London. “There’s a lot of my father in Brian Dennehy,” says Falls. “He loves to laugh. He loves to fight, and he’s always willing, like my father, to demonstrate the intellectual superiority of the conservative over the weak-kneed, ready-to-cry-at-the-drop-of-a-hat liberal, which is true. Our emotionalism plays against us.”

“The two of us understand each other,” Dennehy explains. “It’s like a duet. It’s a piano and a violin making a third sound. We are prepared to go any place, to follow any line, to do any surgery, to say anything to each other, but all to make the thing work.”

The result is an intense and volatile collaboration that digs deep into the national consciousness. “It’s not an accident that our three most successful productions were Death of a Salesman, The Iceman Cometh, and Long Day’s Journey, and all three of these productions deal with the same basic theme, which is, America is not a success,” says Dennehy. “America is a failure for the people who need it most.”

Indeed, for all his success, Falls seems to carry a rich appreciation of failure. “Bob gets stuff because Bob’s so vulnerable,” explains William Petersen, the CSI TV star, who did two plays with Falls . “He exposes himself in such a way-and I don’t know if he does this intentionally or not-but you go, Oh, my God, I gotta strip some stuff down here [because] he’s out there, more naked than I am.”

“It’s a rather worthless breed of individuals,” Falls says of critics. “I think they should
just go away.”

Falls has talked frankly to his actors and tech crews about how his mother’s alcoholism informed his directing of Long Day’s Journey into Night. But such stories usually stay in the rehearsal room, a place from which he bars the media and other interlopers because he feels it is important to create a sanctuary for his actors. They, in turn, are only too happy to keep his secrets.

In 1991, Kathleen Moynihan , a Maryland native whose father was a professor of chemical engineering and whose uncle was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, made her entrance into Falls ’s life. The two met at a party at the home of Frank Galati, one of Kat’s supervisors for her Northwestern University MFA. At the time, she had no idea who Falls was. “I just loved his confidence,” she says. “He’s just a very passionate personality.”

After 18 months, Kat was ready for a proposal. On a visit to her family’s Michigan cottage, she confronted Falls . He told her if marriage was what they wanted, they could do it tomorrow. It wasn’t her ideal proposal. A fight ensued. Both parties went to bed angry. The next morning Kat found Falls “in the happiest mood, and he’d made a list of the hundred people to be invited to our wedding. He’d picked our wedding song. He’d picked the singer who was going to sing it, and he wanted to chat about details,” she recalls. “I said, ‘What happened?’” Falls responded, “I had to get used to the idea.” Kat continues: “Then he told me something that’s been true ever since. He said, ‘I always like status quo in my life. It always really makes me happy, and every change is going to come from you.’”

In other words, a reverse universe from his life in theatre. Kat acknowledges as much, but she says that Falls prefers to put “all of his thought and energy into his work.” At home, he devotes early mornings to the children, cooking their breakfast, supervising piano practice, and getting them ready for school before heading off to the theatre. He returns for the bedtime ritual. Kat, now 42, has had several screenplays optioned and is currently writing a novel for young adults.

Kat finds her husband “incredibly intuitive” and teases him that he could have been a carnival psychic because “he completely reads people’s energy.” She claims he can sense everything “from negative neurotic energy” to whether a person “has father issues” or “alcohol problems.” The ability is intimidating, Kat admits.

It may also be what makes Falls a good director.

When it comes to selecting a production, Fall s works in two ways. “Either I like to think about a play for years and years and years, and finally it bubbles up as needing to be done now,” he explains. “The rehearsal process, then, for me, is an exploration of why. Or there are wonderful times where I like getting a phone call saying, ‘ Would you like to direct a play in three months? Here’s a new play.’ And that’s absolutely fantastic.”

Death of a Salesman represents the first way. Falls initially read it when he was 12. “It was one of the first plays that really went to my heart and overwhelmed me,” he recalls. “Of course, that’s because I identified completely with Biff Loman. I identified with the son. And by the time I directed it [in 1998], I was a father and my identification was solely with Willy Loman.”

Falls wasn’t the only one wrestling with the piece. “Arthur Miller spent his entire life trying to understand Death of a Salesman, because he wrote the first act in a burst over 12 hours,” says Falls . “When I worked with him on the 50th-anniversary revival, he saw new things. The play had changed for him, and you were aware that he was thinking at all times and trying to figure out what it meant 50 years later.”

The more serendipitous way of landing a show came about, for example, in 1999 when his old college buddy Stuart Oken, who had taken over as the executive vice president of Disney’s theatrical division, was having a hard time with the Elton John–Tim Rice musical Aida. Oken asked Falls to fix the “troubled show.”


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