Actress Joan Allen last performed for Chicago audiences at Steppenwolf Theatre in 1991.
It's just one of the many reasons it's great to have her back in the stage spotlight at Steppenwolf for the American premiere of "The Wheel" by Zinnie Harris running until Nov. 10.
Ensemble member Tina Landau is directing this larger-than-life story which blends gritty realism with magical and mystic overtones following Allen's lead character Beatriz, as she attempts to reunite a young girl with her father in 19th-Century Spain.
Landau has assembled a cast of 17 for this just under two hour, no intermission, tale about lessons in faith, persistence and a willingness to believe in destiny.
Allen offers a performance that takes the audience with her every step of the way for an adventure into the mind and soul. And along this road, actor Tim Hopper and other ensemble favorites Robert Breuler, Ora Jones and Yasen Peyankov entertain and amaze. (The price of this ticket is worth its value 10-fold just to see Jones in her scene as a wild-haired crafty impoverished village doctor's wife who is so desperately hungry, she'll eat anything.)
The National Theatre of Scotland commissioned and produced the world premiere of "The Wheel" in 2011. As the play progresses, I was less invested by the finale, as I was in the first hour of what unfolds. Yes, admittedly, this is a journey that made me feel almost as weary as Allen's fate-tempting, would-be heroine.
"The Wheel" is set on a 19-Century Spanish farm, with the main character Beatriz (Allen) happily preparing for her sister's wedding, when the house is overrun by soldiers. In the chaos, she becomes the unintentional guardian of a young girl, played by Emma Gordon. Her determination to reunite the child with her father sweeps Beatriz along on a journey across war zones and through time. But what began as a simple act of kindness takes on a strange twist when the girl seems to acquire curious powers.
Blythe R.D. Quinlan provides an inventive scenic design, that spans from traditional spaces, like a lovely courtyard garden to imaginative abstract landscapes, such as a battlefield, forest and village square. Ana Kuzmanic's costume design is extraordinary and Scott Zielinski's lighting design, married with Kevin O'Donnell's sound design and Stephan Mazurek with projection design seem to transport audiences to another dimension.
Make no mistake that there's a lot that unfolds during the course of this one hour and 50 minute production. Not every moment and scene works with the seamless connection that is expected. But from the live musical moments that welcome audiences during a pre-show to the careful, artistic thoughtful performance of Allen's every expression, "The Wheel" is a round-and-about welcome home for Allen and a celebration of the Steppenwolf craft.
Tickets are $20 to $82 at the box office or (312) 335-1650 and steppenwolf.org.