A younger blonde woman in a pink dressing gown sits in a chair on the left. In the background is an older woman in a brown dress sitting on the bed. The costumes and furniture suggest the 1940s.
Amanda Drinkall and Kate Fry in Wife of a Salesman at Writers Theatre Credit: Michael Brosilow

Eleanor Burgess’s Wife of a Salesman, now in a world premiere at Writers Theatre under Jo Bonney’s direction, starts out with a “what if” premise: namely, what if Linda Loman, the long-suffering wife of Arthur Miller’s tragic American Everyman, Willy, met “the woman in Boston” with whom her husband had an affair and asked her to end it? (The discovery of that affair was the event that throws Willy and Linda’s son, Biff, into a tailspin that wrecks his ambitions.)

But from the start, it feels a little off. The timeline, for one thing: how is it possible for Willy to have been a signalman in the Navy in World War II, when he clearly would have been way too old? The program says it’s “1950ish,” but the Willy in Miller’s play died in the 1940s. Surely Burgess (whose play The Niceties, produced by Writers in 2019, also concerns two women in conflict) wouldn’t make such a careless dramaturgical mistake?The performances by Kate Fry as the Wife and Amanda Drinkall as The Mistress feel like throwbacks, but it’s hard to put a finger on just what isn’t quite translating emotionally.

Wife of a Salesman
Through 4/3: Wed 3 and 7:30 PM, Thu-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 3 and 7:30 PM, Sat 2 and 6 PM, Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Ct., Glencoe, 847-242-6000, writerstheatre.org, $35-$90. 

Until Burgess throws up the lights on a brilliant twist. What we’ve been watching for the last 45 minutes or so is a play-within-a-play, and the two women onstage are in their final dress rehearsal. They’d like to ask for some rewrites (that expressionistic radio commentary just isn’t working for them), but the playwright, “Eleanor,” is staying away because she’s too nervous to attend. Fry’s character is juggling phone calls from her husband, who is home with their sick child, while Drinkall’s younger actor wants to know how to balance career with a future family. They’re far from the Madonna/Whore stereotypes of Miller’s play, as are the women in the play-within-the-play. But they’re also trapped by the expectations of drama itself, going back to Aristotle. People talking about their lives and trying to work shit out? BORING! There must be conflict, moving toward ever-grimmer stakes.

Director Jim (Rom Barkhordar) tries to be sympathetic (he corrects himself after saying “ladies” a couple of times), but he doesn’t quite get why the actors can’t just accept the world of the play as it is (captured by Courtney O’Neill’s curvilinear set, which looks a bit like a down-at-the-heels jewel box). 

What Burgess is after is nothing less than a disquisition on the false dichotomies that hem in women onstage and off. And if the play can’t fully deliver on all the premises it promises, it’s still a heady, funny, and pointed portrait of two women determined to talk things over, even if societal expectations tell them that’s not an interesting or valid choice.