Letts offers a vista of middle age



Viewer alert! If you’re a white, 50s-something male you might empathize with Wheeler in ‘Linda Vista,’ playwright/actor Tracy Letts’ latest  play with a middle-aged white, male protagonist. Otherwise you might wonder why this guy doesn’t move on.

Sally Murphy (Margaret) and Tim Hopper ( Paul) set Cora vander Broek (Jules) up with Ian Barford (Wheeler) at a Karaoke bar. Photo by Michael Brosilow
Sally Murphy (Margaret) and Tim Hopper ( Paul) set Cora Vander Broek (Jules) up with Ian Barford (Wheeler) at a Karaoke bar. Photo by Michael Brosilow

Unlike Arthur Przybyszewski, the 50s-something proprietor of an Uptown  Chicago donuts shop in Letts’ “Superior Donuts,” Wheeler isn’t quietly fading away.

Instead his favorite word is “f…” as he loudly rails against the current US political scene, his almost ex wife, life in Southern California, his tendency to be in humiliating situations, his lack of ability, poor personality and karaoke.

But this is a dark comedy so Wheeler (his first name is Dick but he doesn’t go by that) is funny. When telling his friends who dragged him to a blind date at a karaoke bar, how he hates karaoke, he sounds like Dr. Seuss’ Sam I am in “Green Eggs and Ham.”

However, similar to Przbyszewski, Wheeler does appear to be stuck. He’s  a middle-aged guy in the process of a divorce who is in a dead-end job. Even though his moving out of his house could push him into new possibilities, he just doesn’t appear interested in trying to move on or to improve his life.

He merely keeps messing up, feels guilty, messes up again and talks about humiliation.

Letts drops a few  clues as to the what and wherefores. Wheeler didn’t choose sunny California as his home. We learn that he moved there from Chicago where he was a newspaper staff photographer because his wife wanted to be near her family.

Also in the mix is that he doesn’t think much of his ability as a photographer so he is working in a camera store.

Kahyun Kim (Minnie) and Ian Barford (Wheeler) in 'Linda Vista' at Steppenwolf. Photo by Michael Brosilow
Kahyun Kim (Minnie) and Ian Barford (Wheeler) in ‘Linda Vista’ at Steppenwolf. Photo by Michael Brosilow

He did choose to move into an apartment in the Linda Vista area of San Diego, a neighborhood that is Latino and Vietnamese, not white.

The show opens with him moving into the apartment with help from Paul, a friend he used to have back in Chicago who also moved to San Diego with wife Margaret.

Their re-connection starts an interesting discussion of the value of old friends versus finding new ones. There are questions of expectations and change.

Paul and Margaret are eager to help Wheeler so they set up a blind date in a karaoke bar with Jules, a life coach who has her own problems.

She ends up back in his apartment which has some possibilities but those are interrupted with the appearance of Minnie, a young Asian who is seeking a place to stay after having to leave a different apartment in Linda Vista. Besides, Wheeler doesn’t want someone coaching him on life.

Aside from Letts’ clever dialogue, what makes this play work is the excellent direction by  Dexter Bullard and perfect casting.

Steppenwolf ensemble member Ian Barfor who portrayed Little Charles in “August: Osage County is stellar as Wheeler. Steppenwolf Ensemble member Tim Hopper who was Uncle Vanya in the Goodman play of that name, is terrific as Wheeler’s friend Paul.

Ensemble member Sally Murphy who was also in August: Osage County is excellent as Paul’s wife, Margaret and veteran Chicago actress Cora Vander Broek who was in Goodman’s “Soups, Stews and Casseroles: 1976, is very convincing as the fragile Jules.

Film, television and theater actress Kahyun Kim, has nailed her part as Minnie in her Steppenwolf debut. Ensemble Member Caroline Neff, Rose in “the Flick,”  is the much perkier, fun-to watch camera store salesperson, Anita.

Troy West, another August” Osage County actor, does a fine turn as the strange, maybe sex-obsessed owner of the camera shop. In addition, Designer Todd Rosenthal has devised an excellent rotating set that keeps the action moving without a break.

Details: ‘Linda Vista’ by Tracy Letts is at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, now through May 21, 2017. For tickets and other information call (312) 335-1650 or visit Steppenwolf.


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