Academy Award-nominee and Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member Joan Allen returns to the company in her first stage appearance since 1991 for the American premiere of The Wheel directed by co-ensemble member Tina Landau. Commissioned and produced by the National Theatre of Scotland in 2011, playwright Zinnie Harris takes on the historic nature of war and religion.
To say this is an ambitious undertaking is an understatement. Fortunately the first-rate production team dynamically punctuates these themes via scenic design by Blythe R.D. Quinlan, lighting design by Scott Zielinski, sound design by Kevin O’Donnell, and projection design by Stephan Mazurek.
The costumes are fine for the most part, save for the footwear of the 19th century Spanish peasants who all don matching straw shoes with nary a scuff. Their pristine new huaraches look like they were recently purchased in bulk from a 21st century Cost Plus. But in leather lace-ups, Joan Allen’s Beatriz stands apart—especially since her boots are made for walking.
The drama unfolds once Beatriz embarks on a journey which is more like an LSD trip—passing through time and space as she encounters the evolution of war, from pitchforks to the atom bomb and beyond.
Beatriz is an every man’s man, a normal Joe who doesn’t want to get caught up in conflict. But desperate times call for desperate measures and because she lost her own father in youth, Beatriz empathizes with a nameless, speechless and mysterious child (Emma Gordon) who is left for an orphan. As Beatriz tries to reunite the girl with her father, she soon becomes saddled with other children of war (Daniel Pass plus a doll baby) and is literally weighed down by the baggage she inherits.
Though well-meaning, this type of imagery stems from a kind of Symbolism 101 where clichéd analogies are as basic as the play’s message. Indeed, the company isn’t exactly going out on a limb to declare war is bad. Who isn’t going to agree with that? However after listening to audience members crackling candy wrappers, it’s sometimes difficult to route for humanity.
Of course, if the action on stage were less tedious, said candy wrappers offstage wouldn’t be as noticeable. But despite excellent production values, strong acting and purposeful dialogue, there remains a disconnect between the audience and the play. Perhaps it’s only natural for viewers to distance themselves from the violence before them—even if they consider themselves to be humanitarians. Ironically, this may be the play’s most valid point.
Less effective is its lesson on religion as the work metaphorically suggests spiritual icons can offer hope or despair depending on one’s point of view. While this may be true, it’s hardly groundbreaking and certainly isn’t telling the stereotypically liberal theater-goer anything they didn’t already know. Instead of preaching to the choir, the play would be better suited as compulsory viewing for high school students or members of the NRA and GOP.
Like most wars, the play convinces many that it’s a good idea at the start, but as the action goes on, most just want it to end—perhaps proving war is hell, and a play about war is purgatory.
The Wheel runs through November 10 in Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre on 1650 N. Halsted Street. Free post-show discussions are offered after every performance in the Subscription Season. Tickets range from $20 to $82. To order, call 312-335-1650 or visit steppenwolf.org.