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Chicago by John Olson

The Wheel
Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Also see John's review of Evita


Daniel Pass, Joan Allen and Emma Gordon
There's no shame in a film career that's included three Oscar nominations and other prestige projects like Ang Lee's The Ice Storm and three installments of the very classy Bourne Identity/Supremacy/Ultimatum franchise. Even so, there's still nothing like a bravura stage performance to establish an actor's reputation as a performer of the first magnitude—and that's exactly what we get from Joan Allen, back at Steppenwolf in The Wheel after a 23-year absence. Of course she won a Tony for Burn This 25 years ago, played the title character in Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles in 1989, and was seen not all that long ago in the ill-fated Impressionism opposite Jeremy irons, but a few more stage performances like this one and she could establish herself as a national treasure.

Ms. Allen, of course, is one of several early Steppenwolf ensemble members to go on to wider fame in the film world, and her return to the Steppenwolf stage has been long awaited by local fans. Zinnie Harris's The Wheel is a more than suitable vehicle for the occasion. Allen's character bravely endures a multitude of trials and indignities in the midst of Tina Landau's visual spectacle with gripping supporting performances by some of the Steppenwolf ensemble's leading members.

It is a challenging role in a play that's a challenge to the audience. Harris's anti-war fantasy drama begins realistically, with Allen's character Beatriz preparing for her sister's wedding banquet in an impoverished rural area of northern Spain. The occasion is ruined by the intrusion of local farmers turned soldiers preparing to face the advancing French army. A captured local farmer is brought in and about to be executed for possible collaboration with the enemy but is released on Beatriz's pleadings and sent off to flee unarmed and possibly die in crossfire. Minutes later, other soldiers bring in the man's mute daughter (Emma Gordon) and when Beatriz fails to convince the soldiers to return the girl to her father, she takes the girl herself to catch up with the man whom she presumes to be just minutes away. Though there's no blood on stage, the implied violence is real and harrowing. As Beatriz and the girl set off on their journey, they face hunger, sickness and more violence, all of it feeling excruciatingly real even as their pursuit of the girl's father takes them through World Wars I and II, the Vietnam War and one of the recent Middle-Eastern wars. Along the war, they meet and bring along a gravely ill little boy (Daniel Pass) and an infant. We also see that the girl has the power to heal as well as sinister powers.

Tina Landau's direction makes spectacular use of fly space, trap doors and brightly lit aisles to immerse us in these battles. Blythe R. D. Quinlan's set—mostly platforms and props on a bare stage—together with Scott Zielinski's lighting design make the continual succession of war zones completely horrifying even as we see the stage's bare walls reminding us it's only a play. Ana Kuzmanic's earthy costumes of peasant browns and military greens add to the realism, and Nan Zabriskie's makeup signifying wounds and blood seal the deal.

Beatriz, a single woman with no evident maternal instincts before setting off on what she first believes will be a journey of only a few minutes, is alternately fearful, angry, kind, exhausted and resourceful as she travels across centuries and continents through a never-ending landscape of war. Allen is onstage through nearly all of the play's 110 intermissionless minutes and every minute of her performance feels exhaustingly real. While there are brilliant cameos from Steppenwolf ensemble members Yasen Peyankov, Ora Jones, Tim Hopper and Robert Breuler, as well as guest artists Chaon Cross, Mark Montgomery, Scott Stangland and Demetrios Troy, this is Allen's show and she carries it on her shoulders as sturdily as Beatriz carries the sick little boy on hers.

Harris's play, though it involves magical powers of the girl and the fantasy of Beatriz and the children travelling through time and space, within each moment feels real and horrifying. Their crossing of a No Man's Land in World War I is especially gruesome—crawling under barbed wire and dodging flashing spotlights. In the next World War there are reminders of the Holocaust, but the brutality of American soldiers in Vietnam seems hardly less vile. Harris makes us feel the cumulative effect of war—in reality, never ending for very long; in the play, never ending at all. The particular brutality of the war against children—injured, killed or orphaned—is particularly evident as is the struggle for survival brought on not only by gunpowder but also by the attendant disease and famine. Harris offers the audience the chance for hope through the humanity and strength of Beatriz as well the clever way in which the play ends (and which will not be revealed here).

The play may be some 15 or 20 minutes too long—once Harris's point is clearly made, her script repeats itself even as it takes us through more wars. And, her double layer of fantasy—giving the girl magical powers as well as giving Beatriz the ability to magically travel through time and space—is a lot for the audience to absorb. It takes some work to understand the ground rules she sets up.

Steppenwolf is sometimes characterized as providing, above all, vehicles for actors sometimes at the expense of other aspects of the theater experience. With The Wheel, though, Landau's abundant visual invention combines with Allen's amazing acting to deliver the complete package. The Wheel offers a thrilling visceral experience as well as an intellectual puzzle to be analyzed and debated.

The Wheel will play through November 10, 2013, at the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1605 N. Halsted, Chicago, Illinois. For ticket information, visit www.steppenwolf.org or call 312-335-1650.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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