"The Wheel" (Steppenwolf Theatre): WTF?

"The Wheel" (Steppenwolf Theatre):  WTF?

Steppenwolf Theatre presents the American premiere of THE WHEEL.

My initial reaction to this show was ‘I don’t know what to think.’

Undoubtedly, this is the biggest spectacle I’ve ever seen on Steppenwolf’s stage.  Director Tina Landau doesn’t just contain the action to the stage.  Landau rips out the backdrop and uses the backstage bowels.  She has actors in the theatre aisles, balconies and rafters.  The show starts out with the ensemble playing instruments and singing.  The song has a distinct, sad, folk tale quality.  The music trails off to cue up a scene where Chaon Cross (Rosa) and Joan Allen (Beatriz) are preparing for Rosa’s wedding.  The sisterly banter about hairy legs is intertwined with hints of a drought that has destroyed the land.  Peasants turned soldiers turned wedding crashers arrive and start the war.  And it never ends.  The ordinary farm house goes to incredible war-torn landscape in moments.

Playwright Zinnie Harris creates an epic war story.  Harris sends Beatriz on a simple journey that turns into a complex quest.  Beatriz is trying to reunite a daughter with her father.  War gets in the way… Spanish-French, WWI & II, Viet Nam.  Under the direction of Landau, the visual imagery has scarred me for life.  This play is one big obstacle course of tragedy that the deft Joan Allen must overcome.  Allen gives an exhausting performance.  She carries and drags Emma Gordon (the girl) and Daniel Pass (the boy) through the mud, across barb wire, over dead bodies.  It’s all so disturbingly haunting.

The design team went to war on this circus style drama. Scenic Designer Blythe R.D. Quinlan creates this expansive, industrial-looking set.  Milk crates and ladders turn into homes and railroad tracks.  Trap doors open and prisoners are released.  Along with Scott Zielinski (lighting), Kevin O’Donnell (sound), Ana Kuzmanic (costumes), Matt Hawkins (fight choreography) and Dennis Watkins (magic consultant), Quinlan makes this an unforgettable, bloody, freaky showcase.

Harris‘ story is a tangled web of convolution that I continue to pull apart.  I actually enjoy that style of storytelling.  What didn’t quite work for me was some of the dialogue was stilted throwing off the rhythm of the play.  In addition, Harris made some odd choices even for this strange play. At one point, Mark L. Montgomery (Rossignol) asks Allen if he can kiss her.  It was weirdly out of place.  Allen delivers some rants that just seem more forced pontification than spontaneous lamenting.

I still don’t know what I think about this play.  I do know it’s a conversation starter.  And the discussion hasn’t stopped in my head.

Running Time:  One hour and fifty minutes with no intermission

At Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted

Written by Zinnie Harris

Directed by Tina Landau

Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays at 7:30pm

Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm

Wednesday 2pm matinees on 10/23, 10/30, 11/6

Thru November 10th

Buy Tickets at www.steppenwolf.org

Production photo by Michael Brosilow


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  • We used to subscribe to the Steppenwolf theater and loved it for years. Then I felt the plays got so overproduced, the sets so elaborate and the heavy hand of Amy Morton so apparent. We switched to Lookingglass and have only had one disappointment there and the play was one by an author we hadn't enjoyed at the Steppenwolf. I sure love the idea of the Steppenwolf but the magic of theater just wasn't there for me anymore.
    I very much enjoyed your post and feel we've made the right choice to continue with the Lookingglass.

  • In reply to Kathy Mathews:

    We are so fortunate to have so much great theatre in Chicago. If you enjoy Lookingglass, I'd recommend checking out Oracle, House, Red Tape on the Storefront Theatre scene too. Keep supporting Chicago theatre. And thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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    Thanks for your review Katy. I saw The Wheel in preview and have been waiting for a review! I too was somewhat flummoxed by this production. I spent more time watching the technical business on stage ( the mud! the train tracks!) than I did "getting it." And, although thrilling to see her back in Chicago - live, Joan Allen's occasional lapses into "contemporary speak" were jarring. But - as you say - I've been thinking about the play ever since....

  • In reply to Dorothe Patterson:

    It was a spectacle, indeed. I'm still connecting pieces. Theatre is supposed to make us think and this one did for sure. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and keep supporting Chicago theatre.

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