Steppenwolf's 'Wally World' reunites longtime friends, collaborators

  • Longtime friends Karen Rodriguez, seen here in rehearsal for Steppenwolf Theatre's "I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter," and playwright Isaac Gomez reunite for the online premiere of Gómez's audio play "Wally World."

    Longtime friends Karen Rodriguez, seen here in rehearsal for Steppenwolf Theatre's "I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter," and playwright Isaac Gomez reunite for the online premiere of Gómez's audio play "Wally World." Courtesy of Lowell Thomas

  • Steppenwolf Theatre streams the audio version of Isaac Gómez's play "Wally World," inspired by his mother's experiences working at a superstore. Performances begin Dec. 16 online.

    Steppenwolf Theatre streams the audio version of Isaac Gómez's play "Wally World," inspired by his mother's experiences working at a superstore. Performances begin Dec. 16 online. Courtesy of Steppenwolf Theatre

  • The cast of Steppenwolf Theatre's "Wally World" rehearses via Zoom for the audio play's online premiere.

    The cast of Steppenwolf Theatre's "Wally World" rehearses via Zoom for the audio play's online premiere. Courtesy of Steppenwolf Theatre

 
 
Updated 12/10/2020 11:05 AM

Isaac Gómez and Karen Rodriguez were undergraduate theater majors at the University of Texas at Austin when Rodriguez suggested they move to Chicago after graduation.

Accepting an internship with Goodman Theatre, Gómez, a playwright, challenged his friend: Are you coming or not?

 

To Gómez's relief, she agreed.

"She's my sister," he said figuratively. "I can't imagine going through this with anybody but her."

Rodriguez, a Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member since 2018, recalls "when we moved here, all we had was each other."

That was enough. Since then, the longtime friends have become frequent collaborators. Their latest project -- Steppenwolf's audio adaptation of Gómez's "Wally World" -- begins streaming next week as part of the Steppenwolf Now virtual stage.

Set in a superstore on Christmas Eve and inspired by the experiences of Gómez's mother, who worked her way up to become manager of a big-box retailer, "Wally World" has been six years in the making.

"I went back to my mom's store which I had visited my whole life with the intention of interviewing her associates about their experience and it happened to be on Christmas Eve, which is the one day they close at 6 p.m.," Gómez said of the play, which he describes as 10 employees attempting to "find purpose in a place that doesn't find purpose in them."

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Against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, their story resonates more profoundly, observed Rodriguez, who plays a single mom working as an assistant store manager. She describes the play as a tribute to essential workers.

"Now when we go to the grocery store, we see those people differently," she said. "They show up for us, for the most essential thing, which is food, but for other things ... the things we need."

Developed initially through Sideshow Theatre Company's Fresh Initiative, "Wally World" received a workshop production in Texas during Water Tower Theatre's 2018 new work festival. Last year, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company featured the play as part of its New Play Summit.

Gómez says some revisions made for Steppenwolf's audio production will remain in the stage version, which he hopes will be produced one day. Until then, he's sustained by the cast, whose performances -- delivered via Zoom -- moved him to laughter and tears.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"I was surprised and moved by (the actors') desire to connect emotionally with their acting partners," he said. "It was impressive to bear witness to that kind of talent."

Working on the show, which he codirected with Joseph Jefferson Award winner Lili-Anne Brown, was a bright spot during the pandemic, which hit Gómez especially hard. His father suffered several strokes and both parents contracted COVID-19. Two shows he had running in Chicago closed in response to the coronavirus, which also cost him a writing job with Netflix and forced a Pittsburgh theater to cancel its production of one of his plays.

"Everything went away with the snap of a finger," he said.

"Many days I wanted to break down and cry, but I wouldn't let myself," he said. "I said, 'Isaac you've got to get it together.'"

Fortunately, he had a friend by his side.

"We are each other's rock," said Rodriguez, who starred earlier this year in Steppenwolf's young audiences production of "I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter," which Gómez adapted from Erika L. Sánchez's young adult novel about a teenage girl coping with her sister's death.

In 2018, she appeared in Steppenwolf's premiere of "La Ruta," Gómez's wrenching drama about the thousands of women and girls murdered in and around Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, since the mid-1990s. Before that, the actress starred in Greenhouse Theater Center's 2016 production of Gómez's one-woman show "The Way She Spoke," which also addressed feticide in Ciudad Juárez.

Personally and professionally, they remain attuned to each other, even without post-rehearsal "debriefings" at Buffalo Wild Wings that were their pre-pandemic habit.

Though rehearsals took place remotely, working on "Wally World" felt like old times, Rodriguez said.

The experience reminded them "why we're storytellers in the first place," said Rodriguez, who credited Brown and Gómez for ensuring "everybody's voice was heard."

"In a moment of stillness and uncertainty," she added, referring to the pandemic, "it was a moment of rediscovery."

• • •

"Wally World"

When: Begins streaming Wednesday, Dec. 16

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre at steppenwolf.org/now

Tickets: $75 for a Steppenwolf Now virtual membership, which includes six productions available for streaming through Aug. 31, 2021; $50 membership for essential workers, artists, students and teachers

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