The ladies in Willy Loman’s life take center stage in captivating ‘Wife of a Salesman’
It doesn’t matter if you don’t know Arthur Miller from Miller High Life; “Wife of a Salesman” stands on its own.
For roughly the first quarter of playwright Eleanor Burgess’ ingenious comic drama “Wife of a Salesman,” both plot and characters seem predictable and reductive, albeit cleverly written. We’re in 1950something Boston. The women on stage at Glencoe’s Writers Theatre are named only The Mistress and The Wife. They represent the supporting female characters in Arthur Miller’s truly devastating tragedy “Death of a Salesman,” that seminal tale of a middle-aged man—Willy Loman—who succumbs to despair because he’s not being paid enough attention.
In Miller’s Pulitzer-winner, the wife character, Linda, and the unnamed mistress, exist solely in the orbit of the titular salesman. With “Wife of a Salesman,” Burgess gives the women their own play, having The Wife (Kate Fry) confront The Mistress (Amanda Drinkall) in the latter’s apartment.
Right down to the wigs (bottle blonde curls for The Mistress, sculptural brunette helmet for The Wife), Burgess’ 100-minute play directed by Jo Bonney starts off by making you believe it’s a basic madonna vs. whore smackdown. The stereotypes couldn’t be more glaring, but the dialogue is so smart and so empathetically acted by Fry and Drinkall, you can almost overlook the fact that the show’s foundation appears to be comprised of stale tropes older than the Old Testament.
When: Through April 3
Where: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
Tickets: $35 - $90
Run time: 100 minutes, no intermission
Bonney’s staging is never static—no small feat in a single-set production that’s mostly a two-hander. The dialogue is compelling. We’re water and whiskey, the Mistress purrs. The Salesman (whom we never see) needs one but what he really wants is the other.
The Wife delivers a brutally pragmatic description of love and marriage. And just as the whole thing seems like little more than a two-dimensional portrait of saints vs. floozies, “Wife of a Salesman” takes a wild plot twist that makes you start to rethink everything you just saw. This may sound maddeningly vague, but it’s impossible to say anything more without giving away the perfectly timed and exquisitely executed swerve that changes everything about everything you think is happening on stage.
Spoilers aside, the plot goes like this: After the Wife shows up at the Mistress’ Boston apartment (all shabby shades of Pepto Bismol in Courtney O’Neill’s ruffly set) a confrontation ensues about who has the moral high ground and more importantly, who is going to get the salesman in the long run. Within that framework, Burgess builds an explosive commentary on millennia of sexism.
The action is filtered primarily through four women, all played by Drinkall and Miller. The Mistress and The Wife straight out of Miller’s play, the other two from somewhere else entirely. Fry and Drinkall command the stage whether as Wife and Mistress or their counterparts, creating separate worlds that reflect each other with surreal accuracy. When the four characters start coming and going like changelings, Burgess creates a dual-sided metaverse and a play that comments both on the obstacles facing the women of “Death of a Salesman” and those facing women today.
The women are the only two people on stage for much of the production, the only other voices coming from The Radio (Karmann Bajuyo, Rom Barkhordar and Dekyi Ronge), its broadcasts nudging the drama incrementally toward magical realism. Bajuyo, Barkhordar and Ronge are but disembodied voices, but their vocal blend on the vintage-y ad jingles is smoother than cold cream. And when time, place and character start to bend and shift on stage, their static-y broadcast snippets are both disorienting and make absolute sense.
There is also a smug male character who lives completely outside the world of Miller’s play: Jim (Barkhordar) is the sort of fragile, mansplaining mediocrity that every woman in the world has to tiptoe around in the workplace sooner or later. Barkhordar plays him with stone-cold hilarious accuracy.
The play’s stunning conclusion is deeply satisfying because of its complexity: It’s a moment of brutal, violent loss wrapped around the tiniest shard of empowerment and hope. It is informed by both the limits placed on the women of “Death of a Salesman” and the limits placed on women today. It also doesn’t matter if you don’t know Arthur Miller from Miller High Life; “Wife of a Salesman” stands on its own.