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.

By - Oct 3rd, 2022 01:12 pm
Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents Wife of a Salesman in the Stiemke Studio September 27 – November 6, 2022. Pictured: Heidi Armbruster and Bryce Gangel. Photo by Jenn Udoni.

Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents Wife of a Salesman in the Stiemke Studio September 27 – November 6, 2022. Pictured: Heidi Armbruster and Bryce Gangel. Photo by Jenn Udoni.

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).

Burgess is both an intellectually sharp writer and a clever master of contradictory dialog. She fulfills every dream wish of the audience as this angry righteous housefrau of the past – Heidi Armbruster, a dynamo of gazes and hand gestures who brings applause from patrons who recognize how well she is justifying those historic (wife scorned) standards – crosses blades with a mocking unembarrassed mistress, played for both humor and basic humanity as well as her own brand of glancing looks by Bryce Gangel.

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.

It’s not fair to the play’s skill to detail too closely how the playwright shifts the ground under our feet, but it suffices to say that Burgess the author has anticipated every reviewer or patron question about what Miller saw and didn’t in the original play, what the women onstage are really thinking about, what today’s feminists have to cope with, why the wife isn’t exactly Mrs. Loman, why the play can ask some disturbing questions about Miller, and why the mistress and wife are playing with the audience as much as with each other. Burgess even pretends the play is a work in progress, though she has thought deeply about its elements and meaning.

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.

Wife of a Salesman Gallery

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blog here and here.

One thought on “Theater: Wife Confronts Mistress In Spin Off of Classic Play”

  1. George Wagner says:

    Mr. Noth continues to prove he’s a thoughtful and incisive critic, well aware of a good drama’s nuance and multiple layers.

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