The Wheel at Steppenwolf Theatre Company: Theater review

Brechtian overtones color this grand-scale, intriguing but ultimately perplexing take on the cycle of war.

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Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Emma Gordon, Joan Allen and Mark L. Montgomery in The Wheel at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

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Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Emma Gordon and Daniel Pass in The Wheel at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

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Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Joan Allen in The Wheel at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

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Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Joan Allen, Daniel Pass and Emma Gordon in The Wheel at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

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Photograph: Michael Brosilow

The Wheel at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

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Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Chaon Cross in The Wheel at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

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Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Joan Allen, Daniel Pass and Emma Gordon inThe Wheel at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

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Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Joan Allen and Tim Hopper in The Wheel at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

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Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Joan Allen in The Wheel at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

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Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Demetrios Troy, Joan Allen, Tim Hopper and Chaon Cross in The Wheel at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

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Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Joan Allen, Daniel Pass, Emma Gordon and Tim Hopper in The Wheel at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

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Photograph: Michael Brosilow

The Wheel at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

British playwright Zinnie Harris deliberately echoes Brecht in her intriguing but ultimately perplexing fantasia on war, receiving its American premiere at Steppenwolf after debuting at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2011. The tale begins in 19th-century Spain, when a wedding celebration is interrupted by aggression from France; the would-be bride's older sister, the no-nonsense Beatriz, finds her struggling farm beset with peasants turned soldiers. 

Against her instincts, Beatriz takes responsibility for the young daughter of a neighbor who's just been exiled for deserting. Thinking she'll just catch up to the man and reunite father and daughter before returning home for supper, Beatriz finds herself and the girl traipsing across time, space and circumstance, with each scene placing them in a new and more brutal war—from World War I–era Europe to Vietnam to 21st-century Middle East.

Along the way, Beatriz picks up more young charges—an injured and feverish young boy and an infant who's orphaned in front of her—while the silent girl begins to inspire inexplicable rumors among the residents of the occupied villages the ad hoc family slogs through: First she's revered as a miracle worker, then later accused of causing mass suicides.

The big marketing hook for Steppenwolf's production is ensemble member Joan Allen's return to the theater's stage for the first time since 1991, and she makes a fine, unselfish anchor in a role that requires her to be onstage nearly continuously for almost two hours, with at least half of that time spent playing against two mute child actors and a baby doll. Allen's Beatriz, a stubborn, practical blend of Brecht's Mother Courage and Grusha from The Caucasian Chalk Circle, grunts and complains and protests her responsibility as she drags her young companions across one battlefield after another, but it's clear she'd never abandon them.

Yet the meaning of their journey remains far too elusive in Tina Landau's grand-scale production. Landau and other Steppenwolf personalities, including artistic director Martha Lavey, have described it as an "impossible" play. At this stage at least, it remains so.

Landau's production is visually and technically quite accomplished. Scenic designer Blythe R.D. Quinlan makes the stage a sort of industrialized war zone extended from the Downstairs Theatre's own architecture, full of forests of flying vertical pipes and fortresses of plastic milk crates that are artfully exploded, the environment devolving further and further into chaos as the play progresses. Members of the talented 17-actor ensemble cast tramp up and down the aisles and into the box seats to provide Kevin O'Donnell's live musical score (who knew Ora Jones was a flautist?). It's easy to see, with all these impressively moving parts, why Steppenwolf had to cancel the first public preview performance because the tech wasn't yet up to snuff.

But if the physical production had become a well-oiled machine by Saturday's press performance, the storytelling still needs much greater attention. We're simply not supplied with grounds for the audience to go along with what Harris maps on to the unnamed young girl (preternaturally played by Emma Gordon). 

By the time we near the play's end, and the girl is accused of horrifying, seemingly supernatural atrocities, it seems we're meant to understand that she's been made a bad seed by the accumulation of wartime horrors she's witnessed. And yet that hasn't been at all suggested in what's come before, in a production packed with such obfuscating symbols as boxed butterflies and cabinets full of abandoned shoes.

While the subject matter is all too relevant, and leaning into magical realism could be a welcome departure from Steppenwolf's regular diet, this recounting of war in pieces has to explain itself with a little more specificity. Without that, it's just spinning its wheels.

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