wife of a salesman

Kate Fry (left) and Amanda Drinkall in Writers Theatre's "Wife of a Salesman."

Willy Loman's wife in “Death of a Salesman” is often played as passively long-suffering, but if you saw Elizabeth Franz's searing, passionate performance as Linda Loman in Goodman Theatre's Tony Award-winning 50th anniversary production of Arthur Miller's 1949 play, you have a better idea of what I think playwright Eleanor Burgess is aiming at in the world premiere of “Wife of a Salesman” at Writers Theatre.

Aiming at, but not quite achieving.

Burgess starts with an intriguing premise. What if The Wife (her name isn't used for legal reasons, we're told) visited The Mistress who messed up her family and tries to get her husband back? Each argues that she loves, needs and deserves Willy more, elaborating on her devotion and attention to him. The Wife stresses the importance of keeping her family together. The Mistress points out that if The Wife had satisfied her husband, he would not have turned to her.

With the formidable Kate Fry as The Wife, who begins by pretending to be a fabric sales person, and Amanda Drinkall as the blond bombshell Mistress, who's not as ditzy as she seems, sparks should really fly.

They do a little, but then the women realize that they have a lot in common and proceed to enumerate the disadvantages of marriage and men in general. The bonding is underway, but something is a little off.

For one thing, besides leaving out names, Burgess has altered the time frame. Her play is set in the early 1950s, but in “Death of a Salesman,” the events she refers to take place a couple of decades earlier, when Willy Loman was alive and his sons were teenagers.

The acting style, under director Jo Bonney, is exaggerated, and the scenic design of The Mistress's studio apartment by Courtney O'Neill is almost period-perfect except for odd touches like a canopy of hanging nylon stockings, a reference to a motif in “Death.” (A special shout out goes to properties designer Rae Watson, particularly for the old radio.)

Then a cell phone rings.

It turns out that what we're actually watching is the final dress rehearsal of a contemporary play set much earlier. So Fry and Drinkall are playing actors playing The Wife and The Mistress, and as the phone call to the actor playing The Wife attests, they are dealing with some of the same issues. Her child is ill, for example, and her husband can't seem to manage domestic details on his own.

During a break, partly to repair a prop, the women have to contend with a clueless director named Jim (Rom Barkhordar), who tries to be politically correct but can't keep from calling them “ladies” and sticking his foot in his mouth. They, in turn, are having problems with the script and ask to speak to the writer, Eleanor (writing herself into her own play), only to be told she doesn't attend final dress rehearsals because they make her sick.

The main bone of contention is the ending. The women, especially the actor playing The Wife, want to know why the characters can't just talk things through and work them out like real women tend to do. They don't understand why there always has to be conflict, but Jim insists that's what drama is.

Once the rehearsal picks up again, the objections to the play's ending become clear. But there's more to object to here. Clever as Burgess's concept is, and as good as Fry and Drinkall are, The Wife and The Mistress never become three-dimensional human beings. The remain stereotypes, and their arguments are generic. They're valid, certainly, but we've heard them all before, and they're repeated over and over here.

Not only that. Virtually everything is about the men, which is less than ideal in a play that's supposed to explore women's perspectives.

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