Milwaukee Rep’s World Premier of ‘Wife Of A Salesman’

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.

Heidi Armbruster (left) and Bryce Gangel. Photographer: Jenn Udoni and courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater

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!

Bryce Gangel. Photographer: Jenn Udoni and courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater

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.

Heidi Armbruster Photographer: Jenn Udoni and courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater

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?

Wife Program and Wife Playguide!

Heidi Armbruster and Bryce Gangel (left). Photographer: Jenn Udoni and courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater

The Milwaukee Rep’s Professional Training Institute Production of Michael Rohd’s The Compass

First, a little bit of background on the Professional Training Institute!

The Professional Training Institute (PTI) is an advanced actor training program for students in 9-12 grade. The class of 2021/22 consists of 15 students from 10 different high schools including: Gabriela Bastardo (Golda Meir HS), Alexa Crump (Milwaukee HS of the Arts), Jonathan Edwards (Rufus King HS), Terynn Erby-Walker (Golda Meir HS), Ana Gutierrez (Ronald Reagan HS), Liam Jeninga (Delavan-Darien HS), Michael Loomans (Slinger HS), Kyra Mathias (Kettle Moraine School for Art and Performance), Molly McVey (Nicolet HS),
Yexuanj Rivera Melendez (Milwaukee HS of the Arts), Costello Mylott (Rufus King HS), Angel Rivera (Pius XI HS), Magdalyn Rowley-Lange (Ronald Reagan HS), Alexandria Woods (Rufus King HS), and Isabel Young (Walden III HS).

Just like last year, I went into this not knowing what to expect, and getting totally blown away by the experience. The Compass is a play as challenging as many of the others that the Rep has presented in the Stiemke Theater and the young people performed beyond what I expected of them. Just completely enthralling.

Now let’s get into the play a bit and then the performance. The Compass is billed as an interactive play…and as the Rep disclaims on their site, that doesn’t mean you will be hauled on stage to participate. But instead, in turn, the actors selected audience members as they entered the Stiemke and seated them in their designated area….and the group became their jurors and the area their jury box. So the audience is not acting, but not off the hook!

Marjan using The Compass, photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Rep.

And the play’s content…a tech company has developed an app called The Compass. And after it gains access to your social media and you complete a profile questionnaire, it will make ‘decisions’ for you based on ‘your experience’ as recorded in the app, if you ask a question starting with “would i…’! And not unlike other contemporary apps, the young woman who is the main character relies heavily on The Compass to make her way through life. So as we move through the play, the questions multiply and the answers are always acted upon…and the big question that eventually gets asked after a major upheaval…is…how much responsibility does a person have for his/her actions if they are relying on this app?

Marjan and Chaz, photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Rep.

So this is a very timely play. How much influence do we feel from social media or technology. And with the continued growth and development of artificial intelligence, is it inevitable that a real life app like The Compass will come to market? From the context in the play, it would seem that The Compass may be the apex of peer pressure.

So how does this play out in the play? Well we meet the characters in a rather random way it would seem. In little groups or clusters in vignettes and the time line is fluid, meaning one scene may be contemporary with the next one two years ago and the next a year from now. It is very effective story telling and the audience is kept up to date with the calendar date and relationship to the action being projected on the stage wall as the scenes change.

the trial, photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Rep.

So the audience is kept a little off balance as we learn different facts in or out of order…and the reason that makes a difference…is the interactive nature of the play. At different points in the action…the action stops…and the actors visit their respective juries and ask a number of pointed questions that we discuss and the actor takes away a consensus or some pertinent quotes. These are worked into the play at different points and presented by the actors from the stage. And an interesting side note is the audience jury’s thoughts and ideas are also fluid and subject to change as new facts come into evidence as the timelines start to converge.

And the final focal point of the play is a trial, where Marjan (played by Terynn Erby-Walker) is on trial for a very serious transgression on her part…and the culpability for the event is the argument in the case. The prosecution of course puts the full responsibility on Marjan while the defense poses her as the victim of the technology that she has come to rely on to make decisions. It becomes a sticky mess…and far more complicated that it seems in my brief description here. But Michael Rohd provides us with seemingly valid reasons for both positions plus enough other data points to add additional doubt or conflict. At the end each audience juror has to vote guilty or not guilty and I’ll admit to changing my mind during the performance. And the final count at the Sunday matinee was 56 guilty and 55 not. I heard someone in the audience who had attended an earlier performance say that time it was 57 not guilty to 30 guilty.

Stand outs here start with Terynn Erby-Walker who is front and center much of the play. And although the character relies heavily on The Compass, Terynn also provides us with insight to a very thoughtful and involved high school student who takes on the adult world in a determined way…and is largely discounted. I also enjoyed Alexandria Woods as the prosecutor…very effective presence as someone who knows how to do what they need to do. Her opponent Jonathan Edwards as the defense attorney countered the prosecutor’s positions effectively and he too had the presence of a skilled and determined lawyer. And Gabriela Bastardo as Chaz, Marjan’s BFF who also uses The Compass but plays a more carefree character overall, unlike Marjan who often weighs her action. So Chaz is more of a just do it personality and unfortunately that mindset sets in motion the events leading to Marjan’s downfall.

the jury, photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Rep.

Despite the amazing 2021/22 Milwaukee Repertory season that we just experienced, I think the PTI presentation of The Compass was the most rewarding theater I have seen this year.

photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Rep.

and the rest of the creative team:

PSA: Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Rep Lab 2022!

From my email inbox…and I’ve ordered my tickets!!

After a Three-Year Break, Rep Lab is Back!

Get Two One-Act Plays for Just $10*,

June 24 – 26 in the Stiemke Studio

You’ve seen our Emerging Professional Residents (EPRs) in supporting roles all season long and now it’s time for them to step into the spotlight with two dynamic one-act plays: Hidden in This Picture by Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The West Wing) and The Last Nickel by Jane Shepard (Showtime’s Freak City).

Rep Lab is an opportunity for the actors, directors, stage managers and designers from our acclaimed EPR program to showcase the skills that they have learned throughout their time at Milwaukee Rep.

With only three performances in the Stiemke Studio, tickets are sure to go quickly.

Order your $10* General Admission tickets today and support the artists of tomorrow!

You can order TICKETS HERE!

Hidden in This Picture By Aaron Sorkin

It’s Robert’s first time directing a full-length film and he’s at the home stretch, about to capture the Oscar-winning closing shot. But first he has to contend with an ego-centric writer, his money-managing producer, a bumbling assistant, and a herd of wayward cows all threatening to bring his creative genius crashing down.

The Last Nickel By Jane Shepard

It’s another long night for Jamie, with an obnoxious sister and a trio of sardonic puppets to keep her awake. Tinged with fun and sisterly nostalgia, the merriment inevitably comes to focus on the cause of Jamie’s self-destruction, forcing her to reckon with the loss that has brought her to the edge.

SO! See you there!!

Milwaukee Rep’s Emerging Professional Residency is a training program that serves as a bridge into professional theater. It offers an opportunity to make connections with professionals from around the country and spend a season learning and working in one of America’s foremost regional theaters.