Theater Review: WIFE OF A SALESMAN (World Premiere at Writers Theatre in Glencoe)

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by Dan Zeff on March 12, 2022

in Theater-Chicago


Eleanor Burgess’s new play Wife of a Salesman is a riff on Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Burgess (The Niceties) has adapted the Miller original into an intimate revision, placing two women as adversaries in their competition for a man, Willy Loman, the central character of Miller’s 1949 play who never appears physically on stage but dominates the story as the controlling force in their lives.

The play’s females are simply called the Wife and the Mistress, and Willy Loman is causing them much grief. Still, they can’t live without him. Early in the play, their verbal (and for a few moments physical) battle for possession of Willy stimulates sharp back and forth dialogue in which each woman states her case for ownership, passionately staking out her claim while ridiculing the position of her adversary.

The play takes place in the bedroom of the Mistress. The initial time is the 1950s in Boston, but (SPOILER ALERT) about halfway through the production the action leaps from the ’50s to today. It turns out that all the stormy confrontations we have been witnessing are actually rehearsals for a stage play and the Wife and the Mistress are actresses.

The time frame may jump back and forth several decades, but the each character’s dilemma vis a vis male society remains constant. The Wife in particular is ensnared in a frustrating web of dependency on her man, unwilling or unable to change the relationship to a level playing field that allows equality in the male-female arena. The wife is stuck in the grooves of unappreciated mother-homemaker while the Mistress accepts the role of willing sex toy but she fearfully senses time passing with no long term prospects. The show’s press release states that the playwright was influenced by interviews with her grandmothers, suggesting that the plight of women in our society was ever thus.

Writers Theatre is fortunate in its choice of Kate Fry as the Wife and Amanda Drinkall as the Mistress. The Wife initially comes across as prim and a little stuffy and the Mistress as a ditsy Judy Holliday-type blonde who knows how to keep her man happy. But as the play progresses, both performances expand as their characters discover they share much domestic common ground. The playwright’s articulate verbal exchanges steadily inject complexity into characters who initially may not earn audience respect (the Wife’s pleading initially sounds whiny and the Mistress is vulgar).

There is also an effective cameo performance by Rom Barkholder as Jim, the play’s insensitive director who isn’t as much interested in exploring the play’s social issues as getting the show ready for performance. The playwright gives the male director a proper name while the two women characters carry anonymous labels only, for whatever that may suggest.

Wife of a Salesman runs 95 minutes without an intermission. The first portion is a little talky as the aggrieved Wife demands that the Mistress leave her man alone, rebuffed in turn by the Mistress’s scoffing responses. Then the viewer is jolted by the revelation that the play the audience has been watching is really the rehearsal of a stage play. The unexpected shift may temporarily confuse spectators, myself included on press night. But the adjustment is quickly made as Burgess’s dramatic horizons expand, ending with a shock.

Director Jo Bonney uses her two stars well, allowing the many stimulating talking points to emerge with clarity and urgency. Courtney O’Neill’s set nicely evokes the Mistress’s gaudy taste, enhanced by Rae Watson’s properties design. Raquel Adorno’s costumes perfectly evoke the contrasting personalities of the Wife and the Mistress. Christopher M. LaPorte is the sound designer and Heather Gilbert designed the lighting.

Wife of a Salesman actually doesn’t have that much to do with the original Miller work. Burgess’s offstage Willy Loman seems a more romantic figure than the worn down Willy of the original. I saw no indication that there would be post-performance discussions between the actors and the audience, but I suspect that they would stimulate much reaction, especially among females in the audience. The men likely would keep a low profile.

photos by Michael Brosilow

Wife of a Salesman
Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court in Glencoe
co-presented with Milwaukee Repertory Theater
Wed & Sat at 3 & 7:30; Thurs & Fri at 7:30; Sun at 2 & 7:30
ends on April 3, 2022
for tickets, call 847 242 6000 or visit Writers Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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