Life isn’t fair. The race doesn’t always go to the swift. The boss’s child gets the promotion. The well-connected singer gets the Grammy. None of this is news, and not much is new about Marcus Gardley’s new play, A Wonder in My Soul, receiving its world premiere at Victory Gardens.
Here’s another truism from the show: Somehow, we survive. Here’s yet another: Life happens while you are making plans. And yet another: New friends are silver, old friends are gold. The problem with A Wonder in My Soul is that it’s packed with lots of well-worn maxims and folksy wisdom—good parenting is important, gentrification hurts poor people, the past influences the present, gospel music stirs the soul, Jim Crow is evil, Starbucks stores attract white people. And Gardley just flits from one to the other, never settling long enough on a single aphorism to uncover something new or deepen the audience’s understanding of received knowledge.
He also doesn’t succeed in telling a compelling story. Set in an unspecified neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, the play concerns a pair of African-American friends who are near retirement age, Aberdeen “Birdie” Calumet (Greta Oglesby) and Bell Grand Lake (Jacqueline Williams), and their beloved, iconic neighborhood beauty shop (which they are about to lose to foreclosure). Calumet was a rising singer in the early 1960s but her career was cut short by racism (her label thought she was too dark to feature on an album cover) and by her devotion to Lake (instead of focusing on her career, Calumet helped raise her friend’s two children after their dad left).
There’s enough here for several interesting plays, but the final product feels like a cumulative early draft of all of them. Some scenes run too long, others feel too short; the show endures, mercilessly, for two and a half hours. Gardley intersperses the dialogue with bits of live music (mostly soul and gospel) and flashbacks to Calumet and Lake’s past (they’ve been friends since they were young girls down home in Mississippi), yet the music is mostly filler and the flashbacks rarely provide much insight into the characters.
Gardley isn’t a rookie: he has an MFA from Yale; he’s written a number of plays, including The House That Will Not Stand and The Gospel of Loving Kindness (both produced at Victory Gardens); and he’s earned lots of awards. But the many flaws in this show feel like rookie mistakes. Perhaps director Chay Yew rushed it into production too quickly (though as his director’s note acknowledges, this play was initially slated to run in the spring of 2015 and was delayed so Gardley could write what turned out to be An Issue of Blood, his response to the killing of Eric Garner in New York City).
As Victory Gardens’ artistic director, Yew is fiercely invested in A Wonder in My Soul, and nowhere is that more evident than in the show’s casting—it’s packed with strong actors. Oglesby really knows how to capture an audience’s attention: she begins the second act with a powerful piece of performance poetry, about the strength of black women, that makes one yearn for a full play written in that style. Likewise, Williams finds both the comedy and pathos in Calumet’s likable but hapless friend and business partner. The supporting actors similarly deliver first-rate performances that never quite elevate the not-so-great material.
But the biggest issue with A Wonder in My Soul is how imitative it is of scenes and characters and bits of dialogue in other plays, novels, movies, and poems. The setting immediately reminds one of Barbershop (2002) and Beauty Shop (2005), the characters of the women in Steel Magnolias (1989). Parts of the script sound like August Wilson, though Gardley doesn’t have Wilson’s ear for dialogue. And the evening’s indulgent, interminable ending—in which, one by one, each character is given stage time to reflect a bit on life and then say good-bye—feels like it was lifted straight from Chekhov. By the end, A Wonder in My Soul registers not so much as a powerful play but a hodgepodge of cliches and overly familiar references—it’s desperately in need of more reflection, rumination, and lots of rewriting. v