Chicago Theatre Review
‘A Wonder in My Soul’ an Uneven, but Magical Experience
A Wonder in my Soul – Victory Gardens
‘The House That Will Not Stand,’ the Marcus Gardley play that received its Midwest premiere last summer at Victory Gardens Theater, was one of the very best productions of 2016, a ruthlessly smart, amazingly sincere work of historical fiction that shined a light on an oft-forgotten dimension of Black history.
‘A Wonder in My Soul’ – which is receiving its world premiere at Victory Gardens and features the same playwright, director, and key cast members as ‘House’ – is not quite up to that level, although it does contain traces of Gardley’s magic touch.
Set in a Bronzeville hair salon just before the 2008 presidential election, the plot of ‘Wonder’ is a familiar one: Bell (the masterful Jacqueline Williams) and Birdie (an equally good Greta Oglesby) are lifelong friends who, after moving north to Chicago during the Great Migration, started the hair salon; although there were bumps along the way – Birdie, whose early singing career was sidelined due to her dark complexion, yearned to return to recording music – the friends have persevered through thick and thin. The start of the play, however, finds that their luck has finally run out, as the salon is in debt and in danger of possession.
Similar to ‘House,’ Gardley’s writing is delightfully experimental in ‘Wonder,’ combining elements of flashback, soliloquy, and song and dance. Also similar is the sprawling nature of the work. Running two and a half hours, it concerns not only the fate of the hair salon, but also the state of 21st century Black America – crime, religion, social dysfunction, and family bonds are all explored in depth, especially through Bell’s children, the pampered Lafayette and the ignored Paulina.
All the elements are there, yet the work does not quite soar. There are moments of magic in ‘Wonder’ – Williams’ soliloquy, which opens the second act and caustically describes the process of Black mothers caring for their daughters’ hair, is especially profound – yet Gardley and director Chay Yew are not quite able to put all the pieces together. For instance, a plot line involving Lafayette’s rampant embezzlement at his non-profit is a strong undercurrent through the play’s first act, and it results in Bell and Birdie’s long friendship entering tenuous territory; yet, it dissipates into the background in the second act, even culminating in a sadly cliche speech from Lafayette on how his embezzlement was actually for the good of the community.
In short, ‘Wonder’ is a world-premiere show, and as with some premieres, it is still in need of editing and tightening; but as with his past work, it reaffirms Gardley’s status as one of our very finest playwrights, and I remain excited to see his future work.
Reviewed by Peter Thomas Ricci
Presented through March 12 by Victory Gardens Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln
Tickets are available by calling (773) 871-3000 or by visiting www.victorygardens.org.
Additional information about this and other spectacular area productions is available at the one, the only, the indefatigable www.theatreinchicago.com.