“Wife of a Salesman” imagines a classic American play from a female perspective

Photo by Michael Brosilow

From the moment you walk into Writers Theatre and see Courtney O’Neill’s very feminine set (a sloping, curved clamshell with few rigid lines and lots of pink), you know instinctively that this is going to be a play focusing on women. (Of course, the title Wife of a Salesman might have tipped you off.) In fact, with the author, the director, and almost all of the main designers being women, this may be one of the most female-shaped plays ever. And that’s pretty much the point: playwright Eleanor Burgess’ new play, directed by the talented Jo Bonney, is not so much an homage or even a sequel to the Arthur Miller play its title evokes as it is a biting commentary on the way that so many classic writers treat their female characters as archetypes instead of people using them to define the males who are the leads.

The hard-working Linda Loman, a put-upon woman who stands by her extremely flawed man, is easily the most powerfully poignant character in Death of a Salesman. The men of the Loman household may leave a lot to be desired, but there is little doubt that Miller meant for Linda to be a paragon. Unfortunately, no one is a “paragon”: we all have our own issues, faults, and foibles; some of us are just better at preventing them from controlling our lives. Equally unfortunate is the fact that Miller did not provide any other female characters in his play to compare her to, as the only other women he wrote were, basically, bimbos: the “easy” girls Willy’s sons pick up in a restaurant and a buyer’s secretary with whom he is having an affair. None are meant to be taken even remotely seriously. Burgess instead imagines a meeting between the Madonna and the whore in which the salesman’s wife (please, no direct connection to Linda Loman because…lawyers) travels to Boston to confront her husband’s mistress who, in this reimagining, turns out to be something considerably more than just a fling or a homewrecker. This new play dramatically detours from the older one by leaving the traditional male gaze behind in favor of a female one.

Burgess is not interested in defining her women, as Miller did, through their husbands (or the lack thereof). Her goal in this inventive, powerful, and thought-provoking play is to allow actual three-dimensional women to define themselves. To this end, we discover partway through that what we are watching is not the play Wife of a Salesman, but rather the final dress rehearsal of that play before previews. The two women we’ve been watching—Kate Fry and Amanda Drinkall—are modern actors playing modern actors playing the roles of these late 40s archetypes…and those modern sensibilities have a transparent impact on how they envision their roles. Fry and Drinkall are excellent, bringing depth and agency to both their “character” roles and their “actor” roles. Burgess has brilliantly crafted these dual roles to blend into each other, for example, with both the wife and the actress portraying her thinking first about their children: “I love my job. I love it. I don’t want anyone to think that because I’m a mom, I’m any less ambitious, or hard working. But I think… because I’m a Mom. My ambitions don’t consume me. And it feels… Really. Wonderful.” 

Because of the play-within-a-play device, the layers of “reality” in this play are rather complicated. There is even the somewhat surreal element of a radio that plays a prominent but overtly melodramatic role (at one point seeming to respond to the play’s women). Burgess uses this layered perspective to make multiple simultaneous observations about not only gender roles but about the very ways in which the male vs. female gaze crafts plots and characters. Several times, Fry and Drinkall (in their stage personas) beg their director Jim (Rom Barkhordar) to stop the rehearsal and contact the playwright (Eleanor Burgess, of course: duh!) about the way scenes are written and whether she might still change them. It’s a bit late, in the last dress, to bring this sort of thing up, but we get the feeling that these are not new complaints. Jim, though he cluelessly attempts to seem woke—for instance in his desperate and fruitless attempts to figure out what to call his actors besides “ladies”—can’t help propagating the male perspective of how a play needs to work. While the two actors want to end it with their characters talking things over and working them out, as they feel that is what women would do, he insists that plays don’t climax with “chitchat” and it would be dull without the characters ending up fighting: “Plays don’t end with two characters sitting down and collaboratively working out their problems.” The fictional in-the-play Burgess seems to feel the same way, as we are told that the ending is the one element she has never changed, though the actual playwright Burgess cleverly creates a situation in which it becomes absolutely clear that the actors’ ideas would have made a better play.

As to the play’s structure, that play-within-a-play convention is one that has often been used by playwrights from Shakespeare (Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream) to Chekhov (The Seagull) to Michael Frayn (Noises Off) and plenty of musicals (Kiss Me Kate, The Producers, and Man of La Mancha, to name only a few). I can’t recall, however, a playwright using it to make such a clear, open, unambiguous statement about the ways in which authors of different genders portray our society…and how they could do it much better. And Burgess is careful not to make this a 1950 vs. 2020s situation: through Jim (and to some extent perhaps even the script’s Eleanor Burgess character, who seems to be kowtowing to what the males in her potential audience would like to see…which apparently is not two women settling their differences peacefully), we understand that this is not a problem limited to the past.

One might reasonably call Wife of a Salesman a feminist play. Certainly, it restructures our gaze from the female perspective, allowing us to meet two women who, though very different, feel empowered to live their lives as they see fit. Though neither is fully satisfied, that isn’t the point. There are always tradeoffs and compromises in any life, male or female; it’s always a battle and no one emerges unscathed. Burgess’ play shows both the actors and their characters working on that struggle, aware of how hard it is to find the right answers (if they even exist) but willing to keep trying. The play’s final image, a purely female take on what is stereotypically a male plot turn, calls attention to the fact that, in our society, women still too often must be hurt or broken down before they are allowed to be free. But the final word spoken is “sorry,” a lingering thought that moves way beyond toxic masculinity and provides hope for a more equitable, caring future.

Wife of a Salesman is playing at Writers Theatre in Glencoe through April 3.

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