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Review: WIFE OF A SALESMAN Brings Life-Giving Drama to the Milwaukee Repertory Theater

Review: WIFE OF A SALESMAN Brings Life-Giving Drama to the Milwaukee Repertory Theater

This World Premier is a Modern, Meta Masterpiece

When you hear the phrase "wife of a salesman," it likely sparks something you once read or saw performed in high school English class. An insightful examination of the American Dream, Arthur Miller's 1949 Death of a Salesman is considered a masterwork of American drama. Eleanor Burgess' whip-smart, exhilarating Wife of a Salesman is inspired by this work. It follows the wife of Willy Loman as she confronts her husband's mistress.

Directed by Marti Lyons, Wife of a Salesman is a world-premier production at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. It's on stage in the Stiemke Studio, a black-box theater with a track record for excellent drama. The works the Milwaukee Rep stages here tend to be mighty excellent and thought-provoking. Wife of a Salesman is no exception. In fact, it may just be a new personal favorite.

Eleanor Burgess has written a modern masterpiece full of stimulating themes, moments of emotional connection and genuine laughter, plus playful and shocking twists that had me scribbling "this is brilliant" ("brilliant" heavily underlined) on my little notepad. The way in which Wife of a Salesman manages to bridge commentary on 1950s and 2020s womanhood and motherhood is outstanding. Prominently featured on one wall of the set (designed by Andrew Boyce) is the million-dollar musing: "Who says you can't have it all..."

There's a cast of merely three in Wife of a Salesman, the two female leads commanding the vast majority of the piece (shoutout to Bobak Cyrus Bakhtiari for being a great third wheel). Heidi Armbruster plays The Wife and Bryce Gangel plays The Mistress. Both are magnificent. This is a very talky play as it's literally a 90-minute conversation and confrontation between two characters. So how are they going to keep this interesting?

Armbruster and Gangel make it a cinch to stay enthralled. They deliver Burgess' complex, compelling dialogue with effortless ease and piercing passion. It's impossible to tear yourself away from these performances.


Gangel is every inch the beguiling mistress in her eye-popping fuschia robe (costumes by Izumi Inaba). Beneath that brilliant hue, she brings equal vivacity to the intricacies of this woman who is so much more than a trampy stereotype. Hats off to Gangel's glorious manner of speaking (dialect and vocal coaching by Kathy Logelin) and graceful physicality. It all adds up to perfection.

Armbruster creates a worthy foil, contending with secret longings beneath her complacent housewife facade. Depending where you are in life, you may find yourself relating to one of these women more than the other. I found myself drawn to The Wife. "I think you can make sandwiches for people and be a protagonist," she says. There's a perfect marriage here between player and script. Armburster is an impeccable choice for this world premier production.

It's rare that a theater piece makes me want to a.) know what these actors are doing next and b.) go home and read the script from beginning to end. But Burgess, Armburster, and Gangel have done it. There's so much richness in this dialogue and so much to unpack here. This play would be abundant fodder for a theatrical book club of sorts: get together, see a show, then take yourselves over to the Saint Kate lobby for cocktails and discussion. Trust that you'll have lots to talk about.

Wife of a Salesman is on stage at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater through November 6, 2022. For information and tickets, visit milwaukeerep.com.


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From This Author - Kelsey Lawler

  Kelsey Lawler is a copywriter by day and zealot for local theater by night. She earned her BA in Writing Intensive English from Marquette University in 2009, and has been working as an edito... (read more about this author)


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