Strangely enough, despite my undergraduate degree in theatre, I never had to read Death of a Salesman for school and instead sought it out on my own as a “classic” I needed to read to truly understand American theatre. I had what I thought was a strange reaction to the story at the time. I didn’t especially like Willy Loman or his sons; my sympathy instead lay with long-suffering wife Linda, as little characterization as she got.
Clearly, I’m not the only woman who felt this way about Arthur Miller’s famous text. Playwright Eleanor Burgess spins an alternative tale inspired by the Miller original with Wife of a Salesman, the world premiere of which is currently playing at Writers Theatre in association with Milwaukee Repertory Theater. This scintillating reimagining of Death of a Salesman follows The Wife as she confronts The Mistress in her 1950s Boston home.
Hanging from the top of the set are a string of women’s stockings; likewise, hanging from the conceit of the play are ideas and debates about many of the core issues of womanhood past and present. The Wife and The Mistress discuss marriage, motherhood, love, lust, domesticity, career ambitions, and plenty more besides. The play finds itself trapped in a paradox: it gives the spotlight to the women, but their only connection is through the man they each have a relationship with, who remains offstage but ever present. This highlights one of the play’s central questions: is it feminist, or even worthwhile, to retell men’s stories from a woman’s perspective? Is such an act radical or merely centering men in a different way?
The brilliant writing, which provokes these and countless more insightful and complicated questions, is reason enough to see this play, but the acting and design work are also standout. Kate Fry is breathtaking as The Wife; the stark specificity of her choices brings vividness and nuance to the role. Amanda Drinkall is spectacular as The Mistress, infusing the character with vivacity and charm. The dynamic between the two leads is pitch-perfect. Engaging in a work with such limited characters requires equally strong actors in both roles; luckily, the casting here nails it.
Lighting design by Heather Gilbert is subtle but impactful, guiding the story from one emotional tone to another as the two characters discuss anything and everything. Costumes by Raquel Adorno perfectly match the characters’ personalities and respective attitudes. And the curve-infused scenic design by Courtney O’Neill echoes the themes of the play with its complex but quintessentially feminine design, down to the use of pale pinks and the yonic overall shape.
Wife of a Salesman is the rare play with something intelligent to say about gender. The nature of womanhood is discussed in all its messy glory, with plenty of humor and plenty of gravitas. The play is remarkable, thought-provoking, and surprising, and the strength of the acting and design combine with the whip-smart text to create something truly worthwhile. Wife of a Salesman at Writers Theatre comes highly recommended.
Dates: March 3, 2022 – April 3, 2022
Location: Alexandra C. and John D. Nichols Theatre at 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
Tickets: For tickets, visit the Writers Theatre website.
All photos by Michael Brosilow.