Steppenwolf Theatre Company
What's onstage at Steppenwolf right now suggests that, while directing is a skill and acting a talent, playwriting is a gift from God--and a rare one. Skill coupled with talent will get a writer through the first act, but by the second he'd better have grace--or at least a plan for wrapping things up. Without that, you get Bruce Norris's Purple Heart, whose offbeat character-laden naturalistic comedy drama suddenly turns Grand Guignol. Or you get Jeffrey Mangrum's Wendall Greene, whose offbeat character-laden naturalistic comedy drama suddenly turns passion play. But while Norris's script requires only a believable denouement, Mangrum's desperately needs some connection between its beginning and end.
Wendall Greene takes place in Archetype--sorry, Arkansas, where single mom Cindy is so desperate to change her life she's prepared to believe that cardsharp Cooch will sweep her off to Vegas just as soon as his luck changes. Her son Jimmy expresses his own desperation by seeking out the company of the title character, a mostly silent black man reputed to have done something unspecified to young boys. Whirling around these twin star systems are various local-color satellites, including kindly storekeeper Mr. Pritchet and the overgrown adolescents who hang out on his porch: Terry (the brains of the outfit), Meredith (its gonads), and retarded Seamus (the butt of its jokes). Worlds collide when Cooch's determination to regain his winning streak coincides with Pritchet's scheme to grab Wendall's land.
The first act is Sam Shepard redux: noisy men, a victimized woman, family secrets, and bizarre belief systems, all wrapped up in lots of hootin' and hollerin' and seriocomic patter. People spit in one another's faces and hands, conveying desolation so exuberant and picturesque it's hard to remember that poverty is actually unpleasant. There's so much of the old Steppenwolf on view--unanticipated bloodshed, uninhibited groping, and unidentified yellow liquid being drunk out of a mason jar--that you check your day planner at intermission to see if it's 1987.
You go back into the theater eager to know what Wendall did, what Cooch will do, what Terry will do to Wendall, and so on. Mangrum has set all the wheels in motion, but when the curtain rises on act two, it's a whole different vehicle. These very specific characters have morphed into allegorical figures, and though the actors maintain their naturalistic performances, the script takes an abrupt turn into magic realism. Laconic Wendall delivers a virtual Sermon on the Mount before disappearing in a bolt of lightning; Seamus's half-witted musings become the prophecies of John the Baptist (for which he loses not his entire head but just his tongue); and like Paul on the road to Damascus, Cooch is struck blind. Mangrum reduces card play--the central plot device of act one--to a footnote, a reference to the soldiers who gambled for Jesus's robe. At the end Jimmy is left gazing skyward, amazed, apparently wondering what's happened--to his mother, to the murderous rednecks, to Pritchet, to Wendall. He's not the only one.
Steppenwolf's marketing describes the play as "a mystical drama about race, relationships and when your luck runs out," but Wendall Greene has nothing at all to do with our genuine experience of race. Wendall tells Jimmy, "If you come in the woods with me, it won't be Uncle Remus"--but that's precisely the use the playwright makes of his black character, framing him as a repository of childlike goodness and purity. News flash: African-Americans don't just hover around the periphery of white folks' lives waiting to be fonts of primitive wisdom. (Nor should brain-damaged people be used as props to mouth the playwright's insights. There has to be a better way to modernize the holy fool.)
In the realistic world created by the first act, Wendall is simply incomprehensible as a character. Why is he planting trees on prime cropland? What does he want with a needy teenage boy? Where does he get all his money? And where are the other black people in town? Likewise, what year is this supposed to be if Terry, Meredith, and Cindy all refer to Wendall as a "nigger" without the slightest self-consciousness? Described in the program as "the present," it must be before television arrived in Arkansas; otherwise Terry and Meredith would recognize themselves as cartoons of the good ol' boy.
Under the actorly direction of Rondi Reed (who must have enjoyed this trip down Steppenwolf's memory lane), the performances make Wendall Greene almost worth watching. While Mariann Mayberry's Cindy clings alternately to her son and to her imagined liberator, she's strong enough to stand on her own--stronger than she knows. Mayberry uses her trademark vulnerability to good effect, though, managing to portray the idiocy born of desperation without ever suggesting stupidity. As Jimmy, Will Malnati does a fine job with a character whose age and motivations alike are concealed by the playwright. In his first encounter with Wendall, Jimmy has no sooner raged at him for nearly running him over than he volunteers to help him, despite stony silence from the older man. Malnati makes believable both the boy's need for a man's attention and his premature determination to be a man himself.
Darrell W. Cox and Wesley Walker comfortably fill shoes broken in by Gary Sinise and Jeff Perry as crotch-grabbing oafs about whom the question is not if they're trouble but when (though their Dukes of Hazzard accents slander the entire south). Tim Edward Rhoze does as well as he can with the thankless role of Wendall: there's not much to be said for playing a saint, especially one with his hat pulled down over his face and fewer than ten lines before intermission. The second-act speech when Wendall is lashed to a tree and still offering gentle words of wisdom ("Everyone's got his row to hoe") strains credulity, but that's the fault of the playwright, not Rhoze. Joe Forbrich is duly snaky as Cooch, while Robert Breuler is equal parts charming and creepy as Pritchet. As Seamus, Terry Berner does best of all, keeping his character grounded in the moment--focused on the box he carries, the fishing lures he's lost--notwithstanding his allegorical role as seer and sayer. Brian S. Bembridge's clever scenery drops down or opens out as needed and can withstand any amount of chewing.
The worst thing about Mangrum's play (like Norris's) is watching the first half's kick-ass writing degenerate in the second. Setting up situations and composing snappy dialogue is easy compared to knowing where you want to go and why. In choosing Wendall Greene, Steppenwolf must have figured either that the meaty parts made this flawed play worth doing or that powerful acting could redeem it--once an actors' theater, always an actors' theater. But performances, no matter how bravura, can't make two ill-fitting halves into a satisfying whole.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.