While attending graduate school at the University of Houston, Alan Osburn worked at the Alley Theatre in Houston. It was 1984, and the Alley was preparing to give playwright Arthur Miller a lifetime achievement award; the company needed to have someone drive him around while he was in town. It was one of those right place, right time moments, and they didn't have to ask Osburn twice.
While chauffeuring Miller for the weekend, Osburn caught rare glimpses of the American icon and Pulitzer Prize-winner; actress Mildred Dunnock, who played Linda in the original Broadway production of Death of a Salesman, even sat in the back seat for a while, talking about how to play the part. And Osburn sat next to Miller during the Alley's production of All My Sons.
"Which was quite a journey," says Osburn, who's now the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center Theatre Company's producing artistic director. "You don't really know if you're supposed to laugh, because if he's not laughing, why are you laughing?"
Not that there are many laughs in All My Sons: The story follows the Keller family as it deals with having a son in World War II who is missing in action. The play is more mystery than drama, Osburn says, and the story plays out backward as the community discovers how the young man's disappearance is actually linked to something that happened at home five years before.
Miller was "a very quiet, a very graceful man," Osburn remembers. But on the way home, Miller talked a lot about the play and the original production, and he told Osburn that he appreciated Alley not injecting symbolism into its version.
Osburn remembered this comment as he and FAC set designer R. Thomas Ward made plans for the FAC's Sons production. While Ward originally desired to create an abstract house and backyard, Osburn wanted the set to look real to preserve the play's accessibility. So, as difficult as it's been to get real poplar trees on the SaGaJi stage, Osburn's made it happen.
"[Miller] wanted people to see that this backyard is like anyone else's backyard," Osburn explains. "There's nothing 'high art' about it, there's not any fancy language about it, there's nothing symbolic about it."
Miller told Osburn that he wrote the play for the common man, not for high society.
"Theater throughout history has been branded as kind of an elitist kind of thing," says Osburn. "It's not entertainment, it's not escapism, it's just the reality of what it is."
Another historic reality is that "without AMS, there wouldn't be a Death of a Salesman, there wouldn't be a Crucible," says Osburn. Discouraged by his early plays' limited success, Miller had turned to writing novels — until AMS' breakthrough.
The FAC is staging the work to tie thematically into its upcoming Conflict | Resolution exhibition, though Osburn says the conflict in the play isn't about war itself.
"The play really isn't about the military," he says. "It's more about what happens once you get home, once you're not in the military anymore."