Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association.
Steppenwolf’s new audio play, Isaac Gómez’s Wally World, is not a Christmas play despite the fact that it takes place on Christmas Eve. No, that date is most important to the plot for the chaos and confusion that it creates in the world of retail. The title refers to a big box store (think Walmart), and from the outset we are unceremoniously dropped among the store’s employees as they try to weather last-minute shopping frenzy. It’s a setting rife with possibilities (indeed, the TV show Superstore is a shining example of what this setting could inspire. Unfortunately, Gómez bites off too much here: too many characters, too much confusion, too many side plots. Add to that a problem created by the audio play format (not, of course, the playwright’s first choice): many voices actually sound very similar, and with a ten-person cast, it’s easy to mistake one voice for another. This is a play that might work well if it were whittled down by at least 2-3 characters—along with their subplots—and half an hour, but in its current incarnation it is hard to follow and feels endless.
This is not the fault of Gómez’s dialogue, which is crisp and realistic. Nor is it the fault of the cast, who are uniformly excellent. If anything, it is the fault of the pandemic, which took this play off of Steppenwolf’s stage and stuck it into this ill-fitting format. Co-directors Gómez and Lili-Anne Brown do what they can, but we are stuck with lengthy scenes taking place over walkie-talkies (good sound design by Aaron Stephenson) and so many quick location jumps that store manager Andy (Sandra Marquez) is not the only one who can’t keep track of her crew.
Marquez is very strong as the beleaguered boss lady. She’s the kind of leader who makes it her business to know everything there is to know about each of her nearly 300 employees and yet cannot seem to keep up their morale. In fact, one of her co-managers has just abruptly resigned, apparently due to a personality conflict with Andy, and on this Christmas Eve the rest of the staff is feeling the pressure to move on without her…and not always doing it well. Interpersonal things break down again and again throughout the day and Marquez wonderfully captures Andy’s increasing levels of distress.
Other cast members also stand out. Jacqueline Williams is a steadying presence as Estelle, an assistant manager who aspires to join upper management and who is practically as knowledgeable about the running of the store as Andy. Cliff Chamberlain is all gloss and charm (with a dash of slime) as Mark, a co-manager who can’t help making inappropriate comments and gestures and repeatedly propositions the married Andy throughout the play. Leslie Sophia Perez shines as sales associate Karla, an idealistic (and very pregnant) newer employee who has not yet had the time to find herself as jaded as her co-workers. Audrey Francis plays the perpetually exhausted co-manager Amy, who heads up the overnight shift but has been tasked with remaining on the clock for the day shift due to her missing compatriot. Each of these actors, as well as the others, helps to realistically create the internal politicking of retail stores and the eternal uneasiness that often accompanies it.
I could easily imagine enjoying this play onstage. Its complex interdynamics among the characters and its chaotic atmosphere (controlled in the first act and much less so in the second) might be a lot of fun to watch. Still, I do think there is significant excess that could be trimmed. Perhaps one day when this is over we will get the opportunity to see what Steppenwolf can do with it.
Wally World is now available for streaming online through Aug 31, with tickets and specific times available from Steppenwolf Theatre. The show runs approximately 2:20 minutes with no intermission. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.