Joan Allen
Joan Allen Credit: Michael Brosilow

Last summer Michael Shannon returned to Chicago and his home ensemble, A Red Orchid Theatre, to star in Sam Shepard’s Simpatico. I reviewed the show, and, when I arrived at the subject of Shannon’s performance, I wasn’t very complimentary, saying that he’d resorted to a “cartoonish exasperation that gets reactive laughs but doesn’t serve Shepard’s dark ends.” It seemed to me that Shannon was doing the same overblown stuff he’d done as the villain in the 2012 action movie Premium Rush. I suggested he “spend some more time onstage” to get his considerable theatrical chops back. Only I neglected to write down the part about his considerable theatrical chops.

Not long after that somebody sent me an interview Shannon had done for Malibu magazine. Oddly enough, my name comes up in it. The Simpatico review, Shannon told his interlocutor (Eric Spitznagel, author of The Junk Food Companion and Ron Jeremy: The (Hardest) Working Man in Show Biz), “ripped my heart out of my chest. It got nasty.”

So I want to take this opportunity to reach out to Shannon and assure him that I think he’s basically one hell of an actor, both onscreen (e.g., in Take Shelter) and live. Just not in Simpatico. I hope that helps; I really do respect him.

That said, I think I’m about to alienate another actor I respect, because now Joan Allen has returned to Chicago and her home ensemble, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, to star in The Wheel. And that doesn’t go very well, either.

A 2011 script by Scotland-bred playwright Zinnie Harris, The Wheel is a grim, earnest, ultimately empty phantasmagoria on the subject of warfare. Judging by the hints—Harris isn’t any too specific about dates and places—it starts with the Peninsular War of 1808, when Napoleon’s army invaded Spain. Allen’s character, Beatriz, is a tough-cookie spinster living in a poor—and, according to the program, “peaceful”—village in the northern part of the victim country. As she prepares for her sister’s wedding, a bunch of men show up. Normally they’d be neighbors from the surrounding farms, but the invasion has turned them into soldiers, and they act accordingly, appropriating Beatriz’s land and goods—not to mention the wine the sister, Rosa, had already gone to some trouble to steal from yet another neighbor.

Also in true military fashion, the men’s leader starts handing out summary judgments, opening up a new can of worms with each decision he makes. Beatriz tries to stay out of it, but her native good sense kicks in and she finds herself intervening anyway—a mistake that leaves her with the task of taking a little girl to her father, whom the leader has foolishly banished.

From there it’s a long, symbolic slog through epochs, continents, and conflicts. I’m sure I failed to keep close enough count, but at the very least Beatriz and the little girl visit both world wars (a recorded recitation of the Jewish prayer Avinu Malcheinu is tossed in, apparently to touch base with the Holocaust), Vietnam (where the American soldiers are portrayed as particularly vicious), and America’s post-9/11 adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Along the way, Harris collects metaphors and allusions. Lots of them. In fact, I’d say The Wheel is pretty much all about the metaphors and allusions, many of which are biblical. Beatriz suffers the little children to come unto her, adding a sickly boy and a baby to her retinue. They all go 40 days in the desert without food or drink. The girl (who’s mute, like Katrin, the daughter in Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children) is variously considered a miracle worker or a jinx, and has a tendency to try and scratch out her own eyes. She’s pretentiously nameless until Harris discloses her pretentious name.

Harris’s clearest allusion is to the above-mentioned Mother Courage, the tale of a woman who loses everything—including her three children—while trying to make a living off the 30 Years’ War. The difference between Brecht’s masterwork and The Wheel, however, is that Marxism gave Brecht an analysis, allowing him to put a wicked and profound sting on his fable. He actually wrote a play that demonstrates how war works. Here, it’s just one damn thing after another—each of those things dripping with unearned significance, like footnotes in a term paper, and none of them amounting to anything more than what we already know: war is bad.

And Allen? Well, she makes some sweetly self-deprecating gestures, appropriate to someone with a belief in ensemble, like setting up the curtain call in such a way as to avoid star applause. Yet as an actor, she just doesn’t fit. Her colloquial, casual style seems wrong for the material and wrong for the other actors. Steppenwolf regulars like Ora Jones and Yasen Peyankov slip neatly and vividly into the action, however flawed it is. Not Allen. And the sense that she’s trying to play Beatriz too far below her own real age adds to the disjunction.

Allen hasn’t appeared in a Steppenwolf production since 1991; she hasn’t been in a play at all since a Broadway turn in 2009. Maybe she’s grown too far away from the sensibilities required of an ensemble performer. And maybe the same was starting to happen to Shannon in Simpatico. It all goes back to an old question—old, certainly, for Steppenwolf, which struggled with it as far back as 1982, when True West went to New York. Is an ensemble a place that folks can return to, however long between visits? Or is it a community that lives together, day to day?