You can't go home again, they say, and even when you can, sometimes it turns out better if you hadn't.
Joan Allen returns to Steppenwolf Theatre for the first time in more than 20 years to play the lead role in "The Wheel." She huffs and puffs and wheedles and cajoles and does all she can to lift the play into the air, because if she doesn't as the central character no one else will.
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"The Wheel"★ ★
Location: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650, steppenwolf.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 2 p.m. Wednesday after Oct. 23; through Nov. 10
Parking: Metered street parking and a pay garage
Rating: Not for young children; includes rough language and graphic depictions of war
Yet this anti-war allegory is leaden and clumsy. Spanning centuries and almost an entire globe of war zones, it strives for a magical realism of theatrical effects. Director Tina Landau showed her gifts in that realm last time out at Steppenwolf when she produced deep emotion from next to nothing in "Head of Passes," but "The Wheel" turns out to be too unwieldy for even her to get it rolling.
Things begin promisingly enough with various ensemble members performing folk songs in the corners as the audience is seated. Enter Allen and Chaon Cross as sisters Beatriz and Rosa in what turns out to be rural, pre-modern Spain.
It's Rosa's wedding day, and she pours water on her chest and muses on how her husband-to-be will be disappointed in her form when her clothes come off, which offers only a hint of how incredulous this play is going to get, because clearly she has nothing to fret about in that regard.
Farm-boy soldiers straggle in -- it seems France has invaded -- and in a brutal bit of business (to its credit, the play never shies from the horrors of combat, and Goya's "Disasters of War" seems just offstage) Beatriz is assigned the care of a girl left behind by a seemingly traitorous soldier. She takes the child in hot pursuit trying to return her, because she has no intention of playing mother to anyone.
That doesn't keep her from being saddled with yet another child, a sickly boy. They're befriended and then abandoned by a cowardly deserter, then they make their way into a city in what suddenly seems to be the besieged Paris of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871.
From there, it's just a hop, skip and a jump to World War I, where they pick up an infant to complete the family unit. What becomes apparent is that the girl has eerie powers that make them immune to the conflict around them, even though she may or may not be responsible for much of that conflict.
World War II, the Holocaust, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, with hints of Abu Ghraib tossed in along the way: It really becomes a stroll through war's greatest hits, so when Beatriz stumbles on the deserter again, who had planned to escape to the New World, she has to ask, "What happened to America? The missing species?"
Playwright Zinnie Harris never attempts to answer that. What the script has at its center instead is Allen playing that desperate harried mother we've all seen in Starbucks or Wal-Mart, a woman trying to alternately charm or intimidate her kids into behaving, with no temper in between. Allen is really not to blame here; it's the role as written that's a stereotype, and if there's some point to be made about all families being war zones, well, that's the one area of conflict Harris' drama never really stumbles into.
Emma Gordon does have a spooky Carrie vibe going as the girl, but it's hard to make much of that when she has only one word of dialogue, and that a rather ham-fisted bilingual symbolic pun.
It's old home week at Steppenwolf, however, as Allen is joined by longtime troupers Tim Hopper and even Bob Brueler, who pokes his head in at the end all too briefly.
It's not enough, although for many the star quality will make up for the shortcomings of the play.
Otherwise, when it inevitably comes full circle (it's called "The Wheel," remember?) and Beatriz blurts out, "I can't do it again," that's a sentiment the audience can identify with all too well.