REVIEWSTheatre ReviewsTom Williams

The Wheel


steppenwolf theatre
The Wheel

Directed by Tina Landau

At Steppenwolf  Theatre, Chicago

Sprawling epic journey suffers from too many symbols and over kill

Scottish playwright Zinnie Harris’ 2011 commissioned work (by the National Theatre of Scotland), The Wheel reminds me of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage. The Wheel uses magic realism to send us on a journey with Beattriz (Joan Allen) as she attempts to return  The Girl (Emma Gordon) to her banished father at the start of a war when France invades Spain in the 19th Century. Beatriz was preparing for the wedding of her sister Rosa (Chaon Cross) when the local militia disrupts the affair.

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Beatriz’s act of kindness and her acceptance of the care of  a younger boy (Daniel Pass) send the three on a determined journey across war zones and through time warps that involve both World Wars and Vietnam. Vividly presented through many scene changes that start with folk music before the wedding to stark battle scenes, Beatriz’s journey is a journey of determination, hope and the human reaction to the suffering of war.

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With a cast of 17 players, worthy sound mix ( by Kevin O’Donnell), director Tina Landau stimulates our imagination as we travel with Beatriz and the two children on their odyssey through time and war as they search for the lost father of The Girl. Beatriz’s steadfast determination along with the Girl’s growing magic powers give the show a surreal, almost psychological  feel to this epic saga.  This work feels forced and it carries the burden of too much symbolism. The complex technical demands of the play, while marvelously presented, tend to overwhelm us. The show covers a strong anti-war message while also presenting a glimpse as to how we treat and shape the lives of out children. The influence of Brecht on Harris is evident. Is The Girl a demon or a miracle worker? When she admires butterflies and brings a bird back to life, we wonder about her?

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There are traits in Beatriz’s character: courage, bravery, determination and a strong survival instinct. Upon her journey’s end, she sees that history is starting to repeat  itself but she works to stop that process before it overwhelms.

The Wheel is a technical and theatrical achievement. But, since we don’t empathize enough with Beatriz or the children it plays out as a tedious one hour and fifth minute journey. With too much going on and too many symbols rearing up toward us, we become numbed to the frantic action. It suffers from ‘over-kill’ on many levels. I sure admire the performances by Joan Allen and the children but the show simply tries to cover too much for us to digest. The sheer spectacle may be enough for some but i believe that the lessons of too much is too much indeed does apply here.  Still the technical staging is  somewhat intoxicating.

Somewhat Recommended

Tom Williams

Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast

Date Reviewed: September 21, 2013

For more info checkout The Wheel page at

At Steppenwolf theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago, IL, call 312-335-1650,, tickets $20- $82,  Tuesdays thru Sundays at 7:30 pm, matinees on Wednesdays at 2 pm, Saturdays & Sundays matinees at 3pm, running time is 1 hour, 50 minutes without an intermission, through November 10, 2013


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