Picture if you will, a world where Willie Loman’s wife knocks on the apartment door of Willie Loman’s mistress. Much of what you picture will occur in this Milwaukee Repertory Theater World Premier presentation of the Eleanor Burgess play, Wife of a Salesman. But you mustn’t take that at face value because many other things beyond your initial suppositions are about to occur as well.
Since this is a world premier, I am going to try to avoid being a spoiler on the unique twists and turns presented by the Burgess text. When this gets to be classic along side its inspiration, Miller’s Death of a Salesman, then all’s fair game for discussion. But I think you will appreciate the mystery and surprises inherent here…if I leave them alone!
So we open in the apartment of The Mistress (yes that is her name in the cast list), portrayed in a challenging and invigorating performance by Bryce Gangel. She is enjoying a quiet leisurely Sunday afternoon doing her nails and listening to a soap opera on the radio. Until she is interrupted by a knock on the door…by? The Wife (again simply and directly named) played by a nervous and maybe somewhat dowdy appearing Heidi Armbruster. The Wife of course is tentative at first, trying to sell cloth and materials for DIY home seamstresses, but once The Mistress admits to knowing her identity, we dive into the circumstances you pictured back at first blush. And you will be rewarded. There is shouting, name calling, recriminations, and a number of thrown inanimate objects. Although it never reaches the intensity I supposed when I saw that the Production Support team included Jamie Cheatham as a Fight Consultant.
This play was an immediate draw for me because of playwright Eleanor Burgess. Burgess provides dialogue with precise and evocative language and confronts societal issues head on. And after experiencing the Rep’s Fall 2019 presentation of her The Niceties (see my response here), this was a must see show for this season.
So beside the obvious conflict of wife versus mistress, we witness clearly understood defined ‘roles’ of women in the 1950s…and the germs of the feminist movement that evolves in the 1960 -1970s…very subtly at times but more earnest as the play moves forward. And it unfolds in the simple statements about what each woman wants, what they see as their place in life and society, and their goals around personal life and family life. Much beyond the superficial arguments that we anticipate.
But please don’t think we are stuck in the 1950s. The discussion about the roles of women in the 21st Century will be expressed as well…but I can’t elaborate on that at the moment. sssh. But there are a lot of surprises here!!
And don’t let me create a picture in your mind that this is all serious drama…not at all…there are some pretty uproarious bits of comedy here to relieve the tensions. And the audience at the opening night performance took advantage of all of them to heartily laugh out loud. Burgess writes comedy just as well as the dramatic pieces. So do be prepared to let your mood adjust as needed!
[Added note (10/2/2022). I know that there are only two main characters to watch, but keep your eyes and ears open because the dialogue and action can move fast at times and all of it is key to getting the most out of this play. And after another evening of thought, there is another interesting undertone: through their dialogues and interactions both women evolve in their understanding of their situations. The Wife declares that she has done everything right, husband, home, family, but begins to question the common knowledge around those goals…and whether she is happy. And The Mistress, exclaiming about her role at work and her desire to be available to have fun, after admitting to a change in circumstances, starts to covet some of the things that The Wife has.]
Director Marti Lyons flawlessly brings out the characters of The Wife, Armbruster, and The Mistress, Gangel, and sets just the right timing and conflict between the two women in the core of the play. I have admired Lyons work at the American Players Theatre and appreciate seeing her work on the Rep stage. And oh my gosh, but we have a perfect 1950’s apartment set here. I am still trying to figure out how they got their hands on my mother’s refrigerator. Hats off to the Production Staff for that, particularly Kelly Kreutsberg, the Properties Director. And the costumes by Nicholas Hartman, were pitch (and era) perfect as well.
Now there is one more cast member. And I will coyly mention Jim, played by Bobak Cyrus Bakhtiari. And yes, it’s just Jim. And Bakhtiari nails the role as a gentleman in charge at times to befuddled at others to just wanting to get the job done. But let me put it this way since I don’t want to give the incredible twists and turns away…Jim appears in something of a Hamlet influenced (in my mind) play within a play. Just going to let that be.
I do have one question for my readers who see this play. Most of us of a certain age have seen Death of a Salesman…and any theater student or serious fan of theater has probably seen it or read it…or seen any number of film versions. BUT for those of you not familiar with the Miller play, were you able to understand the story and dynamics here in Wife of a Salesman? Or doesn’t that really matter?
Wife of a Salesman runs through November 6, 2022 at the Milwaukee Rep’s Stiemke Theater. Ticket information is here.
And extra credit reading?