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Joan Allen’s talents wasted in Steppenwolf war drama

‘The Wheel’


When: Through Nov. 10

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted

Tickets : $20-$82

Info: (312) 335-1650;

Run time: 1 hour and 50 minutes with no intermission

Updated: August 28, 2014 3:16PM

In “Mother Courage,” Bertolt Brecht’s epic drama about the horrors of war, an indomitable but wholly unsentimental woman hauls her canteen wagon across the battlefields of 17th century Europe, and along the way loses all three of her children to the violence.

In “The Wheel,” actress Joan Allen has an even more unenviable task. Rather than a wagon, she must haul British writer Zinnie Harris’ leaden riff on “Mother Courage” across the Steppenwolf Theatre stage. Returning for the first time in 22 years to the theater that helped forge her career, Allen gives the assignment her all. But the role of Beatriz — a spinster farm woman in 19th century Spain who ends up trudging her way through more than a century of wars on many continents, reluctantly caring for two young children and a baby in the process — is a losing battle for everyone.

There is spectacle aplenty in this U.S. debut (the play was first produced in 2011 by the National Theatre of Scotland) as director Tina Landau, her large cast and a hugely industrious design team attempt to breathe life and emotion into this ill-conceived piece. But far too many resources have been lavished on what is simply a big, faux-surreal mashup weighted down by dull writing and heavy-handed symbolism.

“The Wheel” is full of sound and fury signifying nothing but the obvious — that war is hell and, for better and worse, tends to reveal people’s true character. Yes, children are the most innocent victims, and violence begets trauma and more violence. But drop as many sacks of bloodied, sheet-wrapped corpses as you will from the rafters, and the fact remains: This point has been made far better and more eloquently in many other plays, including Signal Theatre’s “This Is War” and Lifeline Theatre’s “The Killer Angels” (both running now), and Court Theatre’s soon-to-be-remounted “An Iliad,” in which a mind-boggling, two-minute catalogue of all of history’s major conflicts is far more effective than Harris’ nearly two-hour play.

It all begins as Beatriz, whose farm is afflicted with drought, is preparing a wedding party for her rather self-involved younger sister, Rosa (Chaon Cross). Suddenly, a rude band of soldiers arrives, helping themselves to what little is to be had.

Beatriz intervenes when they threaten to kill Colline (Scott Stangland), a neighbor who may or may not have had dealings with the French enemy. They exile the man, and Beatriz, who has no wish to be saddled with the care of his young, mostly mute, perhaps “magical” daughter (Emma Gordon), sets out to reunite the two. Little does she know that she will get caught up in great conflagrations across geography and time — World War I and its trenches, World War II and the Holocaust, Vietnam (where Harris seems to vent her particular hatred of American soldiers) and Afghanistan, before it all spins back home.

Allen brings her unaffected style to an impossible role, and even manages to be quite funny at moments. But the production wastes the talent of many excellent actors (several of them fine musicians). Mark Montgomery (as a dashing but cowardly entomologist), Yasen Peyankov (as a train station official), Kareem Bandealy (as an informer) and Ora Jones (as a doctor’s greedy wife) manage to leave imprints on small roles. The child actors are surprisingly wooden. So is the play.


Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic

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