Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
When: through Nov. 10
By ANNE SPISELMAN
If you go to Steppenwolf Theatre’s American premiere of “The Wheel” just to see Joan Allen on stage there for the first time in more than two decades, you won’t be disappointed. As Beatriz, a poor 19th-century Spanish woman who becomes the reluctant surrogate mother to a young girl, a younger boy and a baby on a journey through war-torn time and space, she’s rarely out of sight in Zinnie Harris’ nearly two-hour-long intermission-less epic, which was first produced by the National Theatre of Scotland in 2011.
But unless you’re a big fan of magical realism, you’re likely to find the opaque aspects of this symbol-laden work rather annoying, and the riff on Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children” and other plays resembles the originals enough to seem derivative without being especially illuminating.
Director Tina Landau taps into the Brechtian milieu from the outset, with Blythe R.D. Quinlan’s scenic design featuring musty old fabric strung between poles behind a simple wooden table. We first see Beatriz laying out meager provisions for the wedding of her sister, Rosa (Chaon Cross), who complains about the heat and worries about how her groom will react to her hairy legs. She has more to worry about than that: Farmers-turned-soldiers, tipped off by her husband-to-be, soon descend, announcing the invasion of Spain by France and commandeering everything the sisters, who lost their father to war, own. When Beatriz rescues the accused traitor Colline (Scott Strangland) from execution and he’s exiled instead, she’s left with his apparently mute daughter (Emma Gordon) and decides to reunite the Girl with her father, which looks easy since he’s just a little way down the road.
The simple mission becomes a saga, as the determined, strong, plain-spoken Beatriz searches for Colline across thousands of miles and through World War I, World War II and the Holocaust, Vietnam and the Middle East. Along the way, she picks up the dying Boy (Daniel Pass) and baby (a doll) and a bond slowly develops among them. Harris, naturally, explores the usual themes associated with the horrors of war, among them the dehumanizing effects on adults and children alike and the struggle to hold onto any humanity, goodness and appreciation of beauty in the face of escalating violence and ugliness.
The nameless Girl becomes a mysterious — and mystifying — presence as the journey progresses. She may or may not have magic powers, and people turn to her for help, alternately hailing her as a savior and reviling her as a demon. Whether she’s a victim or instigator — or a younger version of Beatriz herself — remains unclear. And we get mixed clues: The Boy appears to be afraid of her at one point, and she likes Rossignol (Mark L. Montgomery), the cowardly yet basically kind entomologist and magician whose name, we learn near the end, is similar to her own.
Given the title, it’s no surprise that the action comes full circle, and Beatriz — having survived 41 days in the desert (the comparison to Jesus is no accident) — is faced with the hateful prospect of starting all over again or killing the child. The question is: Can she change anything with the knowledge she’s gained, or is history doomed to repeat itself?
While Allen ably tackles the difficulties of multiple scenes with mostly silent children and the earthily contemporary yet uninspired dialogue, even managing to inject some humor into Beatriz’s trials and tribulations, the challenge for Landau – and her cast of 17 — is wrestling with this unwieldy script and bringing it to life. She deserves credit for using the whole theater and infusing the piece with acoustic music, thanks to actors who also are musicians. And some of the visual images are striking. But, overall, “The Wheel” is a rather bumpy ride: The narrative pulls us along without having emotional power.