Things look pretty bleak 40 years from now. The U.S. has grown into a fractured society, deep in debt and dry in drinkable water. An impending civil war is just a speech away, and the government has launched a program that selectively sterilizes each of us to manage population growth. And, worse yet, we wear many shades of unflattering grey.
That is, according to The House Theatre’s inventive new play, Wilson Wants It All, an epic piece that nearly bites off more than it can chew. However, House is known for taking risks with lofty material, and, for the most part here, they succeed.
Wilson explores the U.S. political landscape in 2040, which features a broken government, corrupt leadership and a country filled with angry, distrustful citizens. The people eagerly look to Hope (Rebekah Ward-Hays, giving a perfectly-poised performance, while looking stunningly like Julianne Moore), the daughter of an assassinated senator whose 30th birthday marks her decision to run for Senate. Hope, as her name suggests, represents change and a new beginning — though, until now, she’s only been a figurehead for her legendary father and his ideals. Sick of being an icon, she decides it’s time to speak out for what she believes in — a.k.a. to go “off script.” But her life-long guardian and advisor, Wilson (John Henry Roberts, full of intense determination), will not have that. Fortunately for Wilson, Hope has a doppelganger, Ruth (the radiant Leslie Frame), who’s more than willing to serve as a stand in, get dressed to the nines, and say the lines Wilson wants to hear.
This is a big, cinematic story, spanning many ideas while spinning through many locations, often within a single scene. Writers Phillip C. Klapperich and Michael Rohd (who also serves as director) effectively keep the narrative fresh and fast — rarely does it seem preachy, or that it’s hitting us over the head with an agenda. It also helps that the design team has created a sparse, projection-happy environment that comments on the over-saturation of the media without smothering the narrative or getting in the way of the brisk staging.
My only concern is the plot, at times, edges dangerously close to cheesy Syfy channel movie territory. But the honest acting and clear, unfettered direction keep things on track. As Hope, Ward-Hays easily conveys the pressure of reconciling her own beliefs with the overwhelming expectations of others. “What if what I have to say isn’t want you want to hear?,” she asks. The answer is unclear. As Ruth, Frame beams with pride when she discovers, as Hope, her once insignificant voice can now shape a country — with the help of a carefully crafted speech, of course. And with Wilson standing in the wings pulling the strings, Roberts does an admirable job showing how a life in public service can poison the core that makes us human.
Kudos to House for doing something daring and entirely original — I really enjoyed it. I just wish the seats at their home, the Chopin Theatre, weren’t so narrow — my legs were killing me.
“Wilson Wants It All” plays through March 27 at the Chopin Theatre — The House Theatre of Chicago’s resident home. More information here >