Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Linda Vista
Steppenwolf Theatre
Review by John Olson|

Cora Vander Broek and Ian Barford
Photo by Michael Brosilow
Playwright/actor Tracy Letts recently made headlines by announcing that judges of the Jeff Awards committee would not be invited nor provided comps to his the Steppenwolf world premiere production of his play Linda Vista, as a protest against the lack of racial diversity among their members. Letts, a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner, who up until a few years ago was seen quite frequently on the Steppenwolf stage as an actor, is about as big and influential a figure as we have in the Chicago theatre community. For such an lauded person to eschew a potential award carries some weight, and his point was well taken—a cursory look at a group photo of the Jeff judges reveals an overwhelmingly white membership. And, if one values artistic awards at all, there was some cost to his decision as well. Not to get ahead of myself, but Linda Vista would certainly have been a contender for award recognition for new writing and for the bravura performance of its lead actor, Ian Barford. So, there's no reason to doubt the sincerity of Letts and Steppenwolf in making their decision, but it's equally fair to note their boycott may also deflect possible criticism of this play for being not only concerned about a straight, white male, but for making the point that not all straight white men—despite the advantages that class receives—are among the winners in the world.

Barford plays Wheeler, the very definition of a middle-aged sad sack. He has a first name but nobody ever calls him by it. He's in the later stages of an ugly divorce and as the play opens is just moving into his own apartment after spending months sleeping in the garage of the family home where his soon-to-be-ex-wife and his troubled teenage son still live. He has a dead-end job repairing cameras in a store in a shopping mall, working for a pervy middle-aged bachelor (Troy West), and has not really dated since breaking up with his wife, save for a few lunches with co-worker Anita (Caroline Neff) in the mall's food court. He'd be interested in a real date, but as much as Anita likes him, she begs off, because she feels he's a mess and she doesn't want any part of his mess.

Wheeler is a guy stuck in the past, and it's not even entirely his own past he's stuck in. He's 50 years old and since the play is very explicitly set in the present, thanks to Trump jokes, etc., that means he was born in 1966 or 1967. He loves 1970s movies, like Kubrick's 1975 Barry Lyndon), and 1970s music&, pop art stuff that came out when he was elementary-school age and can hardly be considered his own era. Still, it beats the present—and not just his own present circumstances, but most of American society—its politics, its music, its slang (he tells Anita he's glad she only called him a "mess" and not a "hot mess," as the current phrase goes).

Wheeler seems disconnected from others as the play begins. It opens with a long conversation between Wheeler and his old college friend Paul (Tim Hopper) in which Wheeler vents various grievances regarding the state of the world today and Paul admonishes him not to be like a character in a Steely Dan song (Steely Dan being a rock-jazz group mostly active in the 1970s, whose distinctive, melancholic melodies were accompanied by frequently impenetrable lyrics that nonetheless seemed mostly about loneliness and alienation). The remainder of the play makes liberal use of Steely Dan songs, as if to reinforce the idea that Wheeler is exactly like a character in those songs.

Paul and his wife Margaret (Sally Murphy), who like Paul is also a college friend of Wheeler's from the University of Illinois, set up Wheeler on a blind date with a woman named Jules Ish ("is her name not precisely Jules?" Wheeler asks). When Jules (Cora Vander Broek) is attracted to Wheeler, they go straight to bed (in one of two scenes including simulated sex with full-frontal male and female nudity). They date for a month and it all looks promising until an unexpected visit from a neighbor (Kahyun Kim) disrupts the new equilibrium.

If in my first paragraph I suggested Linda Vista is especially sympathetic to men, let's clarify that. Wheeler is not particularly easy to like—he's self-centered, volatile and insensitive at times. Thanks to Letts's complex characters and Barford's sensitive, layered performance, we see that the guy is hurting, though. Letts could tell us more about why Wheeler hurts, and what he does tell, he could reveal earlier in the play. We stay with him, though, for, I guess, the same reasons Jules is attracted to him—he's smart, funny, and ready to give affection. He's needy, though, and places his own needs above those of others. As previously mentioned, West's character Michael, the camera store owner, is pretty much without redeeming qualities of any time. While Hopper's character Paul seems the best of the lot, he has his flaws as well.

Letts's script is both funny and intense—and edgy in its depiction and discussion of sex. If the topic of midlife crisis among men is not new, Letts treats it freshly and uncompromisingly. Director Dexter Bullard and cast allow the script to play out naturally, if perhaps a little too slowly at times. Cora Vander Broek is warm and heartbreaking as Jules, and Kahyun Kim brings nuance to what could have been merely an Asian-American stereotype. Caroline Neff gives Anita an earthy warmth, while West makes you want to shovel six feet of earth over his dead body. The always interesting Tim Hopper creates an overintellectual Paul, and Sally Murphy gives some texture to what could have been a two-dimensional character. And though the script, with this production's run time of around 2:45, is perhaps a little longish, we can give Letts and Bullard credit for not being overly telegraphic. It all feels natural and unforced.

If Linda Vista doesn't exactly strike a blow for diversity of gender voices, it gives an honest, critical yet empathetic look at the some of the issues common among a good share of those privileged white males.

Linda Vista will play the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago, through May 21, 2017. For tickets and further information, visit or call 312-335-1650.