Steppenwolf Theatre

One of the more auspicious things that can happen to a new play is a production at Steppenwolf. The play is usually well acted, directed, and designed, and receives a good deal of exposure. Thus the play arrives at a moment of truth, or at least a moment when, if there is any truth in the play at all, it had better make an appearance pronto or become significant in its absence. And so, one of the scarier things that can happen to a playwright is to have her play put on at Steppenwolf.

Lynn Siefert’s Little Egypt runs short on truth. Its cast of characters are what theater critics call wacky and dramaturges call colorful. You would probably call them hicks. The scene is a small midwestern town, and the central characters are a mother, Faye, and her two grown daughters, Bernadette and Celeste. Faye and Bernadette hook up with a couple of sleazeballs. Celeste becomes attached to a nervous wreck with a heart of gold. Their story, such that it is, is what you might expect when boys and girls get together, fall apart, or stick together against the odds. No, it’s not an original story, nor are the characters. Save one, these characters are fashioned from the same cookie cutter used since city mouse first condescended to country mouse. These are not real hicks, but the hicks of twisted memory, from the small towns of our childhood. These are the hicks that we–we lucky revisionists who escaped to grad school or the big city–left behind, and which we now both glorify and dehumanize. Our humble roots.

Of the characters thus drawn, the most satisfying is Victor, the nervous wreck (played by Francis Guinan). Victor’s a security guard, a nice guy, easily exploited, naive, an idiot savant of the heart. And the playwright has shown Victor some respect by giving him a secret heart that doesn’t constantly illustrate the theme of small-town nowhereism. One of the wonderful and poetically obscure problems with Victor is that he can’t lie down. He must sleep sitting up or else disturbing pictures explode in his head. Only at the end of the play can Victor lie down, and because Celeste lies with him. Why, I don’t know, but it has something to do with celestial imagery.

Consider the imagery. Victor falls in love with Celeste. He lives in the abandoned Galaxy Garage. He wears stars and stripes on his uniform. And, thanks to Kevin Rigdon’s scene design, there’s a stage-wide backdrop of little electric stars that light up during the scene changes. Eventually those stars got to me. They seem to symbolize the best in us, the unreachable beyond, and everything that is intangible except to the spirit. Victor is most closely allied to those stars, and he’s the only character that I cared about.

The other characters are cartoons. Celeste is an egghead who talks like Salvador Dali paints. Hugh, the mayor of Little Egypt, wears matching white shoes and belt. Faye, the mother, wears a foam rubber butt the size of the great outdoors. Bernadette and Watson are a prom queen and James Dean surrogate pushing 30. What there is of these characters is well acted, to be sure, but in the final analysis, like, who cares?

At one end of this uneven ensemble is Laurie Metcalf, who plays Faye. Metcalf is the only cast member who has decided that she’s in a farce instead of a duded-up Chekhov drama. Her caricature is broader, more comic, and she’s great fun to watch. At the other end is Tom Irwin (as Hugh). Irwin is more lifelike, that is, his performance plows up sudden shards of a deeper, prestereotypic life form, as he tills the dusty surface of his sitcom, sleazeball role. The rest of the cast, with the exception of Francis Guinan, linger somewhere between the ends of this narrow spectrum.

Somewhat incongruent with the characters being played here are the words that come out of their mouths. These are very witty hicks. Watson, for instance, quips, “I was playing the game of life without a helmet.” And Faye, at one point, says, “Your daddy loved me”; to which Bernadette replies, “He loved anything that wasn’t stitched shut.” Chittyboom. But, with all due respect to director Jeff Perry, all gag lines are throwaways. The actors don’t hold for laughs, so I guess Perry is holding out for the drama beneath the fluent shellac of Siefert’s comic dialogue. Good luck, but I don’t think the drama is there.

Siefert is also adept at lyrical dialogue, well, half-adept anyway. Take Bernadette’s despair: “Mama, I’ve got a lost dog in my head.” Or, ironically enough, take Victor’s angst: “Somebody take these words from me.” Sure, it’s unfair to lift these lines out of context and expect to be moved by them. But the problem is, these lines have no context; they just seem to spill out of the script as if Linda Blair were at the wheel of this vehicle.

And there you have it, dialogue that’s a little bit Noel Coward, a little bit Dylan Thomas.

Not to say that this play isn’t enjoyable to attend. It’s funny and accessible. The production quality is excellent, as you might expect from Steppenwolf. And if the Steppenwolf ensemble are unable to give their performances depth, they at least give them an appreciable breadth, a versatility, or a fullness of latitude. So you can walk out of Little Egypt amused, even if you aren’t compelled by an original vision of small-town life.

The vision that does shape up strikes me as a lie. Beneath the luminous canopy of stars, and above the narcotic undercurrent of Budweiser, life is put up indefinitely on cinder blocks. Two out of three men are selfish, arrogant jerks, and the third, Victor, needs either a mother or a hefty shot of Thorazine. Two of the women, Bernadette and Faye, are left facing the realization that their prince will never come, period. And Celeste, whom I take for the voice of the playwright–who knows where her head is at? Clearly this is, as Hugh says, a “decapitated town.” But I think it’s been decapitated by the playwright.

Once you scrape off the beurre blanc, Little Egypt is leftover chicken, reheated and not heartwarming. It is not meat loaf and corn on the cob. It is chicken because the playwright doesn’t confront her characters on their own terms. She condescends to them, openly laughs at them, and invites the audience to join her in her smugness. It’s insulting, not only to the people of the heartland but to us city slickers who are asked to validate the playwright’s unacknowledged shame. I find that a chickenshit attitude, and I don’t for a moment buy the play’s sappy conclusion that insincerely urges the audience to love these characters whom they’ve seen ground into the muck all evening.

If you get the opportunity, check out Steppenwolf’s poster for Little Egypt. The centerpiece is a scalloped snapshot of a fat boy, standing in front of a 50s auto, smiling and saluting the camera. The car looks like it’s about to run him over. The boy reminds me of my brother. I think the picture is meant to be funny. Midwestern Gothic. It makes me want to cry.

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