Playwright: Tracy Letts. At: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets: $20-$94. Runs through: May 21
It's been said of the United States that everything not fastened down eventually rolls westward to California, so it's unsurprising that we meet our AARP-aged protagonist adrift in San Diego, where cheap bachelor apartments come with two bedrooms, a swimming pool, cactus-fruit margaritas and a Vietnamese immigrant colony next door. A series of disconcerting eventsthe birth of his son, his wife's wish to be near her family and his pending divorcehave conspired to convince former Chicago news photographer-turned-camera repairman Dick Wheeler that he is a terminal screw-up whose every scheme is doomed to end in shame.
Well, some menand women, tooare simply not meant to move mountains or spawn dynasties. The wise ones freely acknowledge their aversion to conventional career-paths, thus minimizing the damage to themselves and their less perceptive acquaintances. Wheeler has not yet achieved this epiphany, however, instead chafing under discontent propelling him to engage in rants so protracted and vehement, you'd think this was a play by David Mamet and not Tracy Letts.
Wheeler's misanthropic outlook is not improved by his married friends rushing to pair him with a needy "life coach" ( who whines, after just one month, "I thought we were falling in love!" ) nor by his subsequent preoccupation with a pregnant waif who feels stifled by his overeager efforts at second-fatherhood. Only when our aging pilgrim abandons the expectations imposed on him and returns to his natural calling as, not a shaper, but an observer of his universe, do we see glimmers of redemption.
Given the alternatives Letts offers, redemption comes none too soon: Wheeler's best buddy, Paul, is more resigned than content with his marital lot, while camera-shop owner Michael's recitations of pornographic fantasies is bred of isolation, rather than libido. Three of the four women figuring in Wheeler's existential journey fare no better, being illustrative of different stages in the futile quest for fulfillment-through-partnership, leaving Wheeler's friendly coworker the sole individual exhibiting the patience and savvy to determine her destination before inviting others to follow.
These characters could easily be refitted to the dimensions of a TV comedy, but the always-intelligent director Dexter Bullard rejects threadbare Mars/Venus guffaws to draw forth performances steeped in insight and compassion from a cast of Steppenwolf's finest. If you have ever known a Wheeleror maybe you are a Wheeleryou will have no trouble empathizing with this flawed hero for a perplexing age.