Chicago Theatre Review
A Wobbly Way Through Time
The Wheel – Steppenwolf
The premise is interesting. On a Spanish farm Rosa (Chaon Cross) is nervously getting ready to her wedding with Tomas (Demetrios Troy), under the mature guidance of her older sister, Beatriz (played by the wonderful Joan Allen). Suddenly their yard is overrun by peasant soldiers readying their makeshift army to defend against the French. This is just the first of many wars Beatriz will survive as she reluctantly takes charge of a young girl, a sickly little boy and a baby. Believing that if she can just reunite the girl with her father and hoping he’ll also take the other two children, Beatriz is sure she will be able to rejoin her sister at home and normalcy will once again be restored. But Beatriz is in for a two-hour, intermission-less journey through turmoil, time and place. She and her young charges will encounter and try to survive the horrors of every major war in history. In the end she will come full circle (hence the wheel metaphor) to where the play began, as if nothing has happened. Was this simply a dream or nightmare? Has stress or physical discomforts done this to her? Is the young girl in her charge magical, as many people seem to think? What is the meaning behind this adventure in a surreal Wonderland of terror?
Zinnie Harris’ story of survival is fascinating, epic and filled with visual spectacle. It begs comparison with Brecht’s “Mother Courage,” and it has the sound and feel of moments from “War Horse” and “Black Watch.” In its few quieter scenes, there are even moments when Beatriz seems like Scarlett O’Hara in her determination to save her family at all costs. But this Scottish educated playwright has created a drama that hasn’t enough answers. It seems only to provoke questions and cringing reactions to all its horrifying events. Director Tina Landau’s spectacular production, filled with loud explosions, bursts of bright light, blood, bile, body parts and chaos is interesting but difficult to fully comprehend and appreciate. Perhaps a second look would be helpful, but a good play shouldn’t have to rely on multiple viewings to be understood.
Joan Allen is excellent in the role of Beatriz and she deserves credit merely for her stamina, enduring all the physical and emotional trauma around her. It’s great to see one of Steppenwolf’s most talented and successful founding members back on a Chicago stage once again. Emma Gordon’s Little Girl is both controlled and enigmatic as she grows throughout this tumultuous experience, and Daniel Pass is sweetly caring as The Boy. Robert Breuler adds some much welcomed humor, warmth and humanity as Clement. The large ensemble does monumental work playing multiple roles, moving set pieces and even accompanying themselves on instruments while providing folk music that transports the audience on this world-wide journey.
Blythe R. D. Quinlan’s scenic design is flexible and expressionistic, utilizing every inch of the Steppenwolf theatre, including the aisles and balcony boxes. Scott Zielinski’s dynamic lighting both bathes the actors in atmosphere and assaults them with explosives; and Kevin O’Donnell’s sound design and music direction paints the production with a palette of auditory color.
Intriguing, baffling, exciting and sometimes humorous, this production, with its indictment of war and the effects it has on people of every age, class, time and place needs more work to make the rambling script focused and playable. While this production is worth a look, it may leave audiences more confused than enlightened.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented Sept. 12-Nov. 10 by Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted.
Tickets are available by calling 312-335-1650 or at www.steppenwolf.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.