Steppenwolf Theatre

In its multimillion-dollar state-of-the-art theater on Halsted, Steppenwolf Theatre continues its periodic series of plays about poverty around the world with Your Home in the West, the U.S. premiere of Rod Wooden’s story of social and familial dysfunction in the depressed coal-mining town of Newcastle, England. Wooden is described in a Steppenwolf press release as “an English cross between Sam Shepard and David Mamet”–but that’s only for starters. Shepard for sure, in the cruel absurdities and wild-west mythologizing; Mamet a little, in the use of obscenity and in the characters’ fruitless efforts to plan a better future.

But let’s not forget John Osborne and Arnold Wesker, from whose kitchen-sink working-class dramas Your Home in the West has devolved. (There actually is a kitchen sink in the Steppenwolf production, though it’s sort of hidden stage left, more like a reference than a part of the set.) Nor should we overlook Jean Genet, whose phrase “When slaves love one another, it’s not love” is quoted in the program notes. Nor Clifford Odets’s radical rhetoric, nor Eugene O’Neill’s long-winded dashing of delusions, nor the down-and-out depravity of Tobacco Road, nor the tragic pretensions of Arthur Miller, whose Death of a Salesman this play’s ending seems both to borrow from and to mock. There’s even a dollop of Steppenwolf’s own Grapes of Wrath here, when lead actress Rondi Reed whips out her breast to sarcastically offer milk to a mother-obsessed man before hauling the man’s dead mother off the stage like poor old Grandma Joad.

Your Home in the West has bits and pieces of all these antecedents–and the power and believability of none of them. It’s not that the problems Wooden’s writing about aren’t real, but that the characters he’s invented to embody those problems are so patently arranged to make their points. You want male anger? Here, take Micky Robson, the thuggish bully who struts his male bravado while clinging parasitically to the women around him. (He’s fiercely protective, though, of his retarded younger brother Maurice, who faithfully follows him like King Lear’s Fool.) You want female frustration? Take Micky’s ex-wife Jean, a former hooker who has custody of their children but must constantly wrangle to minimize Micky’s lawless influence on the kids.

You want the failures of the past? Wooden serves up Jeannie, Micky’s mum, a crafty old cow whose abuse of the post-World War II British welfare system has sown the seeds of her children’s sorrows. Symbols of the future? Try on Sharon and Michael, the Robsons’ teenaged daughter and seven-year-old son, who seem destined to play out their parents’ patterns–Sharon as a slut and Michael as an outlaw. (We never actually see Michael–he’s asleep offstage–but he’s as strong a character as the rest, which says a lot about this collection of symbols passing for people.) You want hope for change? Take Sean, Jean’s live-in boyfriend (and the butt of her venom), who sings Woody Guthrie songs and wants to move the family out of Newcastle and into a better future. (Dreamer and drinker that he is, naturally Sean is Irish.) You want the Rest of Society? Take Jill, Michael’s well-meaning but naive schoolteacher, whose effort to counsel the family prompts an abusive tirade about the failure of the system from the gutturally eloquent Micky.

Jill’s passive endurance of Micky’s scornful sexual threats at the end of the first act was the last straw for many press-night viewers; women in particular seemed astounded that Jill didn’t just tell Micky to fuck off and walk out of the room. But she couldn’t, you see; if she’d left, who would have been there as an excuse for Micky to deliver Wooden’s cliched lecture? (In a nutshell, to quote The Threepenny Opera: “First feed the face, then talk right and wrong.”) Some cliches are true, of course; Wooden’s scorn for English society’s replacement of failed liberalism with coldhearted conservatism in the 1980s is perfectly justified. But nothing in Wooden’s script comes close to offering a solution, while the agitprop characters are too contrived to stimulate any meaningful emotional response in the audience.

So the only way Your Home in the West works at all is as a vehicle for acting and production techniques, and under Tom Irwin’s direction it certainly has those. Reed is impressively sexy and chilly as the tightly wound Jean, and Ted Levine’s timing of Micky’s cathartic breakdown is right on the money. Tim Hopper is charming as Sean, even in the character’s darkest moments, and Shannon Cochran nicely etches the teacher’s dawning awareness of the ugly situation she’s stumbled into. Estelle Parsons, who’s got the best vocal technique of anyone on the stage, is a memorable, almost mythic crone of a mother, and Andrew Leman never lets a false moment turn babbling Maurice into a black-comic grotesque.

Technically, the show is the best that money can buy. Kevin Rigdon’s set shows a living room–complete with a descending staircase that takes characters out of sight when they go to answer the front door–that is surrounded by towering brick walls, evoking both the bleak exterior of the high rise and the metaphorical prison in which these people’s circumstances have placed them. Erin Quigley’s costumes are just unappealing enough to suit the characters, and sound designer Richard Woodbury has teamed up with lighting designer Rigdon to create a showy auto-outside-the-window illusion that sets up the climactic car crash even if the script doesn’t.

Your Home in the West lambastes England for subjecting its underclass to fickle charity giveaways. The actors and designers of Steppenwolf Theatre are luckier; this AT&T-funded show gives the company what England has failed to give Wooden’s characters–jobs–and they do them well. Meanwhile, a few blocks from Steppenwolf (but a world away from most of the theater’s subscribers), the realities this play attempts to dramatize are played out daily in the apartments of Cabrini-Green. I wonder if somewhere in Great Britain a highly acclaimed provincial repertory company is presenting a play about impoverished Chicagoans; meanwhile, going all the way to England to find this script is a little like–well, like carrying coals to Newcastle.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.