Sold out by the American dream

US actor Patrick Cronin returns to his Cork roots for an iconic role, says Colette Sheridan

AS part of The Gathering, Irish-American actor, Patrick Cronin, stars in Arthur Miller’s classic play, Death of a Salesman, at Cork’s Everyman Theatre from May 20-25. The production is directed by Sasha Dundjerovic, head of drama and theatre studies at UCC and founder of Kolective Theatre Company.

For Cronin, who plays the lead, Willy Loman, the aging, down-on-his-luck salesman, working in Cork is a home-coming. Cronin, the son of a Mallow-born father and a Co Mayo-born mother, was contacted by relatives in Mallow. Born in Philadelphia in 1941, Cronin says he had an identity crisis. He spoke with “a brogue” until the age of six, when it was knocked out of him by cruel classmates.

“I eventually started thinking of myself as an American and not just a guy with a US passport. But I always knew I was sort of Irish, whatever that meant. But when Josephine O’Sullivan (nee Cronin), from Mallow, got in touch with me, I had ambivalent feelings. My father liked to drink and my mother worked hard as a cleaner to support us, so she wasn’t around a lot of the time. In a sense, I didn’t like being Irish. I’d have preferred to have been English. There were country clubs I couldn’t go to,” he says.

Cronin is now proud of his Irish roots. When he came to Mallow, to visit his relatives, he wanted to be involved in theatre in Cork. He contacted Dundjerovic and the artistic director of the Everyman Theatre, Michael Barker-Caven.

“I told Michael I was an actor, looking for work. He said he could give me ten minutes. We met for two hours and kicked around ideas. When I went back to the States, Michael and Sasha, who had decided to collaborate, kept contacting me. When I came back to Cork again, it was decided to go ahead with a collaboration between UCC, the Kolective Theatre Company, and the Everyman,” Cronin says.

East Tennessee State University, where Cronin works as a professor and as head of theatre, has granted him sabbatical leave and is paying him to work in Cork.

Cronin’s son, James, a New York-based actor, is playing one of Loman’s sons, Biff. “I’ve worked with James before and we have a very professional working relationship.”

Before he became an academic, Cronin had a lengthy career as a working actor. He has appeared in 150 plays and 200 TV and film roles, including in Seinfeld, Knots Landing, LA Law, Hill Street Blues, Cheers, Star Trek, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Films that he has appeared in include Rocky V and Splash.

This is the third time Cronin is playing Loman, a man who experiences the death of the American dream.

Asked about the enduring appeal of this Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Cronin says that “if it were only about economics, it wouldn’t be done. For me, it’s a play about family relationships, about fathers and sons.

“Willy has filled Biff with the false idea that if he is liked, he’ll never want. But the bottom line is that Biff can’t succeed in the world because, as he says to his father, he has filled him with hot air, so that he can never take orders from anyone. There is a beauty and inevitability about this tragedy.

“People say it’s a depressing play. It can be, but there’s nothing depressing about seeing triumph overcoming adversity. There are worse things than death. I think that, at the end, Willy has peace and feels he’s doing the right thing for his son. Biff says that he finally knows who he is.”

Cronin says that many people go through life not knowing who they are. “I spent a lot of my life wrestling with the question as to whether I wanted to be a great actor or a TV star. They’re not the same thing. One is about money.

“I did a lot of TV shows just for the big pay cheque. But I wasn’t being paid to do Chekov or Synge or O’Casey. In that way, I’m my own Willy Loman. I didn’t always make the choices that elevated me. I made the choices that were expedient. But don’t we all do that?”

Cronin started out as a singer, but realised he wouldn’t have a big career in this field. He “fell in love” with theatre, studied drama at Tulane University in New Orleans, got into Actors’ Equity in 1964, worked with “some really good directors”, and ended up teaching at Temple University, in Philadelphia, for five years.

“All of a sudden, I was hitting 30 and knew I wanted to act full-time. So I quit teaching and started hustling. I got my Screen Actors’ Guild membership and took the leap by going to Los Angeles. I hit pretty quickly. I had a good, strong career. I was a working actor,” he says.

Cronin may not be a household name, but he is proud that he constantly worked as an actor.

“It’s easier to become a millionaire than a middle-class, working actor. From 1970 to 2000, I didn’t do anything but act. I made $75,000 a year. That’s a lot of money for an actor,” he says.

While academe now suits Cronin, the lure of the stage is still there. He is approaching the role of Loman “by looking for his humanity, this time round. I don’t want the audience going — ‘oh my God, he’s pathetic’ — or performing him as larger than life, so that he’s not really a human being.”

Jean van Sinderen-Law, who’s playing Loman’s wife, Linda, “is approaching the role in a way I’ve never seen before. She’s usually played as steely or fairly mousey. What this play is showing is the love the two characters really have for each other. In other productions, that tends to get lost in the tragedy.”

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