Wife Confronts Mistress In Spin Off of Classic Play
Female characters from Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman' given new words in Milwaukee Rep play.
It’s a bit misleading to note that “Wife of a Salesman,” which is opening the Rep’s Stiemke Studio season, is a world premiere since the Milwaukee Rep co-commissioned the piece from Eleanor Burgess. Her provocative and I think better “Niceties” was staged at the Stiemke in 2019.
Not that “Wife” isn’t also provocative and well-acted (the earlier play more than justified seeking a long-term relationship). In it a housewife — much like the wife in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” from the 1940s — confronts the road mistress (who is much like Willie Loman’s mistress, the one given short shrift by Miller as simply another of the temptations faced by the traveling salesman being pulled into capitalistic unhappiness and personal doom; references to his famous play abound).
These two are polished, nuance-capable performers keep the encounter fascinating, even as it goes deliberately into unexpected domains. Ambruster ranges seamlessly from object of our derision to sudden defender of the marital system, while Gangel flutters to amuse and then savages the tendency of married women to demean her.
The production, with its use of radio broadcasts and matter-of-fact stagehand interruptions (embodied by a deliberately neutral deadpan but funny Bobak Cyrus Bakhtiari) is not just well directed by Marti Lyons. She works to keep the actors fresh and the audience off balance. The script requires a healthy dose of direct confrontation giving way to girl chat giving way to renewed hostility with ferocity lurking under the hood.
The first part of the play is as funny as a good joke-oriented sitcom, with the women score amusing points against each other. Then Burgess delves into our modern mind, exploring the difference between the way women behaved then and how they behave now. The play forces us to seesaw on many surfaces as the actors wander in and out of character and reveal more facets of the attitudes underlying the confrontation.
In anticipating our questions and doubts, the playwright tosses too many possibilities in the air to maintain total believability (we are meant to feel the hand of the author), though the production does wonders in keeping us alert to nuances.
The ending doesn’t really work in context, but in a shocking way brings cruel force to the views of motherhood and abortion the play toys with.
The excellent Rep play guide provided to patrons through Nov. 6 puts “Wife of a Salesman” directly into the stream of new plays inspired by and commenting on established theater classics, like Miller’s. It’s worth noting that the endurance of “Death of a Salesman” means a new production that was a big success in London is opening this month on Broadway, with the Lomans made into a Black family.
What sort of legs this Stiemke spin will have is yet to be determined, but it’s an enjoyable, meaningful theater game that definitely digs into our brains as a conversation starter.