Maybe we can chalk it up to a mid-life crisis…or, maybe, Wheeler is just a self-loathing man who’d just assume sabotage his own happiness rather opting to wallow in self-pity. In Steppenwolf’s Linda Vista, a new play debut by Tracy Letts and directed by Dexter Bullard, we get a very funny, and highly realistic, account of a man who has seemingly given up on life and love.
Wheeler (Ian Bradford) has moved from a cot in his wife’s garage to his own apartment in the Linda Vista apartment complex. With a soured marriage and an estranged relationship with his son coming to an end, Wheeler has the opportunity to start fresh, but that’s much more difficult than it sounds – at least it is for him. As we get to know Wheeler, a former Sun-Times photographer with promise who now holds onto a routine job as a camera repairman, we see someone who has been riddled with repercussions that have stemmed from a series of poor choices. Wheeler resents his soon-to-be-ex-wife for having him leave his Chicago life for California to be closer to her family. He resents his son for - well, just getting in the way of his life. He resents happy people. Hell, he resents Radiohead. But Wheeler has accepted his current situation – a cynical alcoholic that shoots down other people’s hopes and dreams, believing he is a “piece of shit” who “doesn’t deserve to be happy”.
Wheeler’s best friend Paul (Tim Hopper) and his wife Margaret (Sally Murphy), friends from their college days, haven’t given up on him. They want to find him a partner who can bring out the old Wheeler who once had dreams and ambitions himself. When Paul and Margaret set Wheeler up with a friend of theirs, Jules (Cora Vander Broek), who is bright and bouncy, Wheeler reluctantly accepts and, as you can probably imagine, he has a few skeptical things to say after finding out she is a life coach. This, of course, threatens a man who wants a simple, joyless existence. Complicating matters for Wheeler, he takes in Minnie (Kahyun Kim), a twenty-four-year old rockabilly enthusiast recently kicked out of her own apartment in the same complex by her abusive boyfriend.
The play is very truthful. It is about regret, wrecked opportunities and the consequences of unfortunate decisions. It is about letting oneself spin out of control, essentially giving up, and the struggle to choose happiness - a challenge when becoming so distant. But is also about hope and the chance to change for the better. In Wheeler, we are given a lovable “asshole” that we must root for.
Ian Barford is tremendous as Wheeler. Barford quickly draws in the audience, grabs them and never lets go. Convincing, humorous and often decidedly heartfelt, Barford captures the essence of his self-deprecating character so well, we can’t help but think of a few “Wheeler’s” we know ourselves. Tim Hopper does fine work and is believable as Wheeler’s tolerable, but supportive, best friend as does Sally Murphy, both nicely adding to the play’s humor (I’ll just say karaoke bar scene).
While Kahyun Kim is brassy and nails the too-cool-for-school attitude as Minnie, Cora Vander Broek is sparkles as Jules, perfectly pairing with Barford as his counterpart in a true positive/negative kind of relationship. We are also taken to the camera shop where Wheeler plugs away all day fixing one camera after another under the supervision of his crass boss Michael (Troy West), who is just waiting for a sexual harassment lawsuit to be filed against him as he repeatedly gawks and spews inappropriate comments at his clerk, Anita (Caroline Neff).
A revolving set takes us inside Wheeler’s California apartment, his workplace and to a bar. He lives simply, and that’s all he wants, DVDs of Stanley Kubrick littering his media stand and a refrigerator most likely only filled with a couple six-packs and a box of Arm & Hammer.
Linda Vista is a well-acted ride into Wheeler’s uncertainties on turning fifty with the realization that his best years have long since passed. It is a play equipped with a stellar cast, a very funny script that is also genuine and even moving at times and direction that is so precise we can easily identify with each of Letts’ characters.
Very highly recommended.
Linda Vista is being performed at Steppenwolf Theatre through May 21st. For tickets and/or more show information visit www.steppenwolf.org.
*Note – This play does contain full frontal nudity and sexual simulation.
*Extended through May 28th
How much do we reveal about ourselves to others? In a masterful new Steppenwolf production, title character Mary Page Marlowe gives the short answer: Only what we know.
It may sound like an unpromising premise, but in recounting the life of ostensibly ordinary Mary Page Marlowe, a CPA from Dayton, playwright Tracy Lett’s shows his Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning chops, with a script that achingly reveals the human condition.
Through a dozen vignettes, one of six actresses plays Mary Page Marlowe at various stages. The first is in a restaurant, where Mary Page tells her kids that mom and dad are splitting. She gazes across the audience, asking loudly with her eyes, “How did I get here?”
Mary Page appears in every scene that follows, and the play challenges the audience to flash back and flash forward with her in time. We see her years before in a tryst with her boss; and years later in session with her therapist. Action jumps ahead to her deathbed, then back to her parents’ home in the 1940s, when she was just a baby.
From this we weave together the narrative of Mary Page Marlowe’s life: an alcoholic daughter of an alcoholic mother, her son who battles addiction, her family suffering the life of quiet desperation typical of many under the repressive social expectations of the 1950s and 1960s.
Mary Page Marlowe displaces her unhappiness in drinking and love affairs. A DUI near-fatal accident sends her to jail, and ends her second marriage. Hitting the wall, she finally comes to terms with her drinking and her life. Marrying successfully, she is eventually widowed. Alone on her death bed, Mary Beth Marlow confesses to her medical attendant she is ready to go, and has come to terms with her life.
All that is easier said than done on stage, and the audience may struggle at times to follow the characters’ progress in this play which yearns to be a movie. It is clear why director Anna Shapiro, who is also artistic director, postponed a sabbatical just to work on this production, which rivals film in its creative presentation.
Co-starring in all this is the set (Todd Rosenthall) and Lighting (Marcus Doshi), which moves from scene to scene by sliding in rooms, and dropping in translucent partitions that shape-shift through projection and backlight. The effect is truly cinematic, with scenes dissolving, like artfully edited film. Letts may be showing the influence of Hollywood, having watched his masterworks August: Osage County (Meryl Streep and Sam Shepard) and Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey) transfer from stage to screen.
The structure relegates the 21-member cast to largely extended cameo roles, but these carefully chosen performers really deliver. Along with the title actresses, two standouts were Stephen Cefalu, Jr. (Ed Marlowe), the very picture of a post-World War II young father; and Kirsten Fitzgerald (Shrink), who knows how to project her lines, and commands the stage.
Six actors portray Mary Page Marlowe: Blair Brown (Mary at ages 59, 63 and 69); Carrie Coon (Mary at ages 27 and 36); Laura T. Fisher (Mary at age 50); Caroline Heffernan (Mary at age 12); Annie Munch (Mary at age 19); Rebecca Spence (Mary at ages 40 and 44), along with three live infants who intended to rotate in the role. (It was unclear in a recent matinee if a real baby made the curtain time. Other ensemble members Ian Barford (Ray) and Alan Wilder (Andy), Amanda Drinkall (Roberta Marlowe), Jack Edwards (Louis Gilbert), Tess Frazer (Lorna), Keith Gallagher (Ben), Sandra Marquez (Nurse), Ariana Venturi (Connie), Madeline Weinstein (Wendy Gilbert) and Gary Wilmes (Dan).
Mary Page Marlowe can be seen as a coming of age story, starring a Baby Boomer everywoman. Letts has also broken new ground, here, not just in the cinematic style of this play, but in examining to what extent we can reveal in our new relationships a life’s worth of baggage collected along the way.
In what may be the most revealing scene, the widowed Mary Beth Marlowe (Blair Brown) strikes up a conversation with a dry cleaning clerk Keith Gallagher as Ben) about restoring an old quilt – a conversation riddled with yearning, about nothing, and everything. Just like the play.
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