Lanford Wilson grew up in the Missouri Ozarks, and he seemed always to keep a spiritual foot there. Some of Wilson’s plays, like those in the “Talley Trilogy,” followed ordinary Missourians on their home turf; others, such as Balm in Gilead or The Hot L Baltimore, took place in urban settings but were stocked with characters, like the Girl in Hot L, who you sensed might well have come from the Ozarks, or at least passed through them.
Wilson wrote with a deep sympathy for his characters, often marginal sorts going about the pedestrian business of making it through their lives; he said he let his characters guide the direction of his plays. Even as his profile increased with successes like Hot L’s Off Broadway run of 1,600-plus performances or his 1979 Pulitzer for Talley’s Folly, he maintained a Midwestern modesty and loyalty to his compatriots. He seemed able to move as freely between Broadway and smaller theaters as his writing did between the big city and small towns.
Perhaps that’s why his work has been so attractive over the years to the Steppenwolf ensemble, as many of its members have answered the siren calls coming from New York and Los Angeles while maintaining their ties to home. Wilson’s first full-length play, Balm in Gilead, caused a sensation when it debuted at LaMaMa in 1965; John Malkovich’s 1980 production traveled to New York in 1984 and caused a sensation of its own, part of the first wave of Steppenwolf exports that brought the company nationwide attention and got that city talking about “the Chicago style.”
Three decades later, Steppenwolf turns to 1973’s Hot L, another large-ensemble piece for the down-and-out. In a bittersweet bit of timing, Wilson passed away at age 73 on March 24, the morning of Steppenwolf’s first preview. Perhaps I’m projecting, but Landau’s production feels appropriately elegiac, even if some of her choices as director don’t land.
Wilson’s subjects are the denizens of a rundown residential hotel that’s rumored to have an imminent date with the wrecking ball. There are hints that Wilson’s got the country’s decay on his mind as well as the hotel’s, as when the nameless Girl laments the decline of the railroad system. But mostly, this is a group portrait of strugglers and strivers in perpetual motion but not getting anywhere.
The hotel’s residents include a pair of prostitutes (Kate Arrington’s Suzy is mercurial, maybe bipolar, while de’Adre Aziza’s practical April gets many of the show’s biggest laughs), an aging hypochondriac (Yasen Peyankov) and a retired waitress (a serene Molly Regan) who claims to commune with spirits. Landau gives her a friendly ghost to communicate with, a wordless but not tuneless gent played by Sean Allan Krill in ’40s-ish attire, observing beneficently from the upper level of James Schuette’s handsomely shabby set.
Allison Torem plays the 19-year-old Girl in full-on Manic Pixie Dream Girl mode—a choice that’s supported by the suggestion that night clerk Bill (Jon Michael Hill) is carrying an unrequited torch for her. In another bit of embellishment, Landau makes that possibility concrete by the insertion of an inner-monologue song for Bill (an original composition of Hill’s), one of a number of musical interludes. The gifted Torem feels out of sync with her castmates in her Steppenwolf debut; I’d like to see her dial down the manic energy and settle into a more natural rhythm.
Still, Torem seems deeply connected to her character, as do almost all of these lived-in performances (including touching turns by Jacqueline Williams, James Vincent Meredith, Namir Smallwood and more). It’d be nice if Landau could set down her directorial highlighter, though. In a number of scenes, she underlines a moment by bringing down the lights and ambient sound and putting tight spotlights on the faces of one or two characters. It’s an interestingly theatrical choice, but like Krill’s spectral character, it feels like an odd intrusion of the supernatural into Wilson’s poetic naturalism.