This month The Milwaukee Rep hosts the world premiere of playwright Eleanor Burgess’ dark satirical comedy Wife of a Salesman. Directed by Marti Lyons with dynamically jarring scenic design by Andrea Boyce, it’s a jaw-droppingly complex comedy on many, many different levels. The post-modernist deconstruction of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is also a deep dissection of the nature of theatre, life and the socio-cultural impact of the past six decades on the psyche of the American woman. So...y’know...it covers kind of a lot of ground for roughly 90 minutes without intermission.
Heidi Armbruster conjures a profound complexity to the stage as the woman referred to in the title of the play. She’s come quite a distance to present herself as someone selling fabric door-to-door. She’s got a very narrow target market for what she’s selling: one woman. That woman is played by Bryce Gangel. She’s young. She’s confident. She’s having an affair with the other woman’s husband. Armbruster and Gangel hold the central conflict of the drama together with deft poise that allows for a great deal of comedy to slide cleverly around the edges of every word. Armbruster speaks to the wisdom of experience while Gangel conspires with the energy of ambition, but there’s a hell of a lot more going on here than hits the surface. This IS a confrontation between a wife and her husband’s lover, but it’s so much more than that.
It’s a social satire based on a play from over half a century ago. One might not expect it to explore the issues of contemporary life for modern women, but Burgess finds an ingenious way of bringing it altogether in deeply satisfying and provocative story of conflicting desires and ambitions. Lyons brings-out an impressively sophisticated dynamic between the two women. Bobak Cyrys Baakhtiari provides comic relief and contrast as a guy who is simply looking to do his job in and amongst the weight of so many conflicts. Burgess’ many, many layers of theme and subtext provide a vertiginous conceptual space for the story to inhabit. A meeting between two people might seem simple on the surface, but Burgess has managed to draw a complexity of perilously high thematic gravity into their orbit.
The dark satire largely focusses on one very long interaction between two women who have never met before. As it is over an hour long, it’s inevitable that the women are going to find a lot of common ground. Burgess manages to keep everything running through the darkness into the reality that awaits at the end of the story. Both characters are deeply interesting people who are each admirable in their own way. Armbruster and Gangel develop deeply engaging emotional dynamics to the stage. There’s a deep desire to see these two characters getting along. In many ways both characters feel like they represent equal and opposite ends of humanity itself. If only they could come together to an understanding maybe...and maybe they WILL come to an understanding one way or another. Burgess has built such a fascinating dynamic. Lyons and company have done such a good job of summoning that dynamic to. the stage.
The Milwaukee Rep’s production of Wife of a Salesman runs through Nov. 6th at the Stiemke Studio Theatre on 108 E. Wells St. For ticket reservations and more, visit The Milwaukee Rep online.