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Review: Willy Loman's Wife and Mistress Duke It Out in New Play Wife of a Salesman

Jo Bonney directs this world premiere from Eleanor Burgess at Writers Theatre.

Kate Fry and Amanda Drinkall in Wife of a Salesman
(© Michael Brosilow)

Two women wrangle over a man who may not be good enough for either of them. The man himself doesn't appear, but he's easily recognizable from the women's discussion. He's a mediocre traveling salesman from Brooklyn, with a joke for every occasion and two teenage sons. One woman is his wife of many years, the other is his mistress in Boston. Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is clearly the model for Eleanor Burgess's Wife of a Salesman, although the nameless characters are identified only as Wife and Mistress. Burgess also alters the Death time frame. She sets Wife in the early 1950s with the sons still teens and the salesman still alive. That's about 20 years later than the Death flashback when Biff Loman catches his dad with a woman in Boston, the incident which poisons their lives.

The nameless women and the different time period may be devices to avoid copyright issues, but they also position the new play as more than an extension of Miller's classic. It's a much broader examination of marriage, motherhood, and a woman's participation in any relationship, with Wife (Kate Fry) and Mistress (Amanda Drinkall) landing good punches at each other, men, and social convention in Burgess's pointed and facile (in the best sense) script.

By stages, the hostility between Wife and Mistress gives way to bonding as unexpected details are revealed. For instance, Mistress left evidence in the salesman's car for Wife to find ("I thought you should know the truth," she says), and Wife had an illegal abortion to avoid having another child.

Then, midway through the 90-minute work we learn that (spoiler alert) Wife of a Salesman is a play-within-a-play and we're watching a rehearsal. The play's comically annoying male director (Rom Barkholder) appears, and he and the actors discuss the play and its connections to Death of a Salesman. One of the women observes that Arthur Miller's main point is "that men are miserable because they try to find the meaning of life through their jobs."

It's also precisely Wife's fix, although left unspoken: she's sought meaning through marriage and motherhood — her job — and she clings fiercely to her beliefs. Mistress projects different values, yet craves something better for herself, which Wife warns she won't find with the salesman or any man. Wife compares herself to an apple and vehemently says you can't eat the apple and throw away the core, referring to her years of self-sacrifice and compromise. It's a direct parallel to the moment in Death when Willy Loman tells his young boss, "You can't eat the orange and throw away the peel — a man is not a piece of fruit!"

Director Jo Bonney has guided esteemed Chicago actors Fry and Drinkall to outstanding performances as Wife and Mistress. Both characters are strong women with deep vulnerabilities, trying hard not to wear their hearts on their sleeves. Fry convincingly plays into the stiff and restricting look of Wife's costume, appearing tall and proper in a calf-length brown tweed suit, which is stylish but conservative (Raquel Adorno designed the period-realistic costumes). By contrast, Drinkall is relaxed and more fluid in a louche lounge outfit of white and pale-pink stripes with blue trim, as Mistress casually sprawls on the bed or hangs her feet over the sofa arm.

And why not? The play takes place in her spacious and comfortable studio apartment, a rounded thrust platform decorated in light-patterned wallpaper (Courtney O'Neill is the scenic designer). A high-up curved ceiling piece is draped with dozens of women's stockings, a reference to a running device in Death of a Salesman. However, several unexpected old-hat flourishes — a cathedral radio and a non-electric icebox — confuse the time period a bit, which, remember, is the early 1950s.

If Wife of a Salesman has a weakness, it's that it feels more like an intellectual exercise than an emotional investment. It's an open-ended discussion with no definitive takeaway, especially after a crucial late revelation and a closing physical confrontation. One is conscious of the Death points-of-reference and of the perspectives being presented, and aware that Burgess's purpose is less about storytelling and more about demolishing narrow aspects of "conventional wisdom" which still remain prevalent. The play offers plenty to think about broadly, but not so much to care about personally, as Wife and Mistress end in a draw, with attention still needing to be paid.

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