Pre-curtain and offstage, singing guitarists make music, setting the tone for a play that opens on a pastoral setting of two nineteenth-century Spanish peasants, two sisters on one’s wedding day. They prepare for the big occasion and converse over the trivial matters of everyday life that consume so much of our existence. It’s all very bucolic until a soldier abruptly appears and aggressively asserts himself. At first gradually and soon completely, the most conventional of human lives gives way to the absurd theater of war. The older sister, Beatriz (Joan Allen, back at Steppenwolf for the first time in more than twenty years), reluctantly gathers war “orphans” and embarks on an odyssey to reunite one of them with its father. Fans of narrative get lost about here, as the journey enters the realm of magic realism and begins to resemble a dark dreamscape, an odyssey across time, place and history, from war to war, a litany of one horror after another, until she returns, full circle, to the beginning. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, in other words.
Never dull under Tina Landau’s direction, the pleasure in this work lies in the layers and layers of references, allusions and metaphors that shape the journey, many drawing from Western history, from religion and mythology. At times the proceedings resemble a Greek tragedy with really foul language. Brecht fans will find resonances. Other times Fellini’s “8 1/2” comes to mind.
Playwright Zinnie Harris has created a strangely bipolar world, one that leans on broad stereotypes: women nurture and protect, and men wreak violence and make war while being domestic cowards. Things are desexualized in an extreme; Allen’s character interacts exclusively with men (and children), yet never hints at any kind of attraction or desire. Equally bizarre is the nonchalance with which she abandons her nubile young sister into the questionable stewardship of a gaggle of rapacious soldiers while she embarks on a quest. Apparently these men are trustworthy in no way but one.
Though the play boasts a cast of seventeen, most have very small roles, while Joan Allen is center stage in every scene. And though the script may come up short at times, she never does. Her spoken sentiments may not reflect it, but she portrays her character as a stoic heroine trudging purposefully through carnage on an ill-defined crusade, like Lady Liberty on a war poster.
The silent young girl who Beatriz seeks to reunite with her father, played with nuanced expression by Emma Gordon, seems alternately to possess mysterious healing powers as well as the capacity to promulgate inexplicable horrors. Eventually she bleeds from her eyes, like a blind Justice. But is she meant to represent a vengeful god who “works in mysterious ways?” or simply a vengeful America that works in ways that serve its purposes above all else?
The game of spot-that-reference or unpack-that-allusion is so entrancing that it’s easy to overlook the transparent simplicity of the play’s themes: not only those about gender, but also about war—that it destroys everything about reality that makes living a reasonable proposition. Nor does the language soar to match the work’s ambition: other than a short meditation one character delivers on the “magic” that exists in our everyday lives and in nature, more typical is the howl uttered by Beatriz at one particularly low moment that sort of recalls Scarlett O’Hara’s more eloquent moment in the dirt: “Fucking hell!” And so it is, this world depicted here. It’s hell. (Brian Hieggelke)
Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 North Halsted, (312)335-1650, steppenwolf.org. Through November 10.