What is more American than faith in the transition of caterpillar to butterfly? As we crawl through our daily existence, we believe that soon enough, we’ll flutter skyward to our glorious potential.
A few will reach the sky. Some will make it part way. The rest will, like the main character of Tracy Letts’ LINDA VISTA, never get off the ground. Sardonically played by Ian Barford in Steppenwolf Theatre’s world premiere, midlife Wheeler just can’t get those butterfly wings going.
That may sound depressing but thanks to Letts’ trenchant dialogue, Dexter Bullard's brisk direction and a soaring cast, the show keeps us afloat for its nearly three-hour length.
We first see Wheeler on a slowly-turning stage revolve as he moves into a San Diego apartment complex called Linda Vista. With his marriage over and his 13-year-old son barely communicating, the 50-year-old camera repairman now embarks on whatever the next phase of life will bring. If anything. As we quickly learn from banter between him and his old friend Paul (Tim Hopper) who helps carry open crates and stuffed garbage bags into the bland new digs, Wheeler is a stymied man.
LINDA VISTA’s one-liner wilderness
Wheeler is also very funny, spouting one liners worthy of a stand-up comic. Noting the country’s intense polarization, he professes no interest in finding common ground with those who have opposing views: stupid people should just stay on their own side – far from him. Of Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature: “I made a fried egg this morning. I’m up for a James Beard Award.” So far, Wheeler’s divorce hasn’t been nasty but, he tells Paul, “I can see nasty from here.”
No wonder Wheeler keeps up the jokes. With limited funds and even less confidence, he has little more than wit to survive the Southern California wilderness of food courts and apartment complex swimming pools.
Libidos on display
Libidos drive the story as much as the humor. Paul’s wife Margaret (Sally Murphy) introduces Wheeler to their attractive friend Jules (Cora Vander Broek). After initially dismissing her, Wheeler responds deeply to Jules’ observation that he’s “like a turtle who doesn’t know he’s lost his shell.” A scene later, the pair lands in Wheeler’s bedroom, their verbal and physical activity exposed in authentic detail.
That’s not Wheeler’s only sexual foray at Linda Vista. He ends up with a pregnant 24-year-old Vietnamese-American woman crashing his apartment. Quickly – though rather implausibly – Wheeler’s libido shifts to Minnie (Kahyum Kim). More bare skin, more hope of new beginnings.
Standard storyline refreshed
Decaying men who captivate comely younger women are all too familiar. But Letts refreshes the sexist trope by making the four females of LINDA VISTA so robust and distinctive that they leave us with far more confidence in their wellbeing than the men onstage. Even Wheeler’s buxom co-worker Anita (Caroline Neff) handles their creepy boss Michael (Troy West)’s sex-and-violence commentary with such nonchalance, we can’t help but admire this woman.
Steppenwolf cast shines
The Steppenwolf cast shines in a script that addresses middle age with wicked candor. What if a caterpillar prefers to remain a caterpillar, LINDA VISTA asks us to consider. Upbeat Jules is a life coach who has – literally -- a master’s degree in happiness. But she is no more capable than anyone else in Wheeler’s life of getting him to find his wings and reach for the sky.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO. Click here to read — Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Note: An excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago.
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About the Author
Susan Lieberman is a playwright, journalist and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her Jeff-winning play Arrangement for Two Violas will be published by Chicago Dramaworks in summer 2017.