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Wheel Thing

Joan Allen returns to Chicago in a play that has the city abuzz. 

Joan Allen

From her critically lauded performances in films like The Ice Storm and The Contender to Tony Award-winning turns on Broadway, actress Joan Allen has never shied away from a challenge. So it’s not surprising that it was as enigmatic and intellectually daring a play as The Wheel that recently drew the Chicagoland native back to the Steppenwolf Theatre after a two-decade absence. “There’s so much happening in [The Wheel]; I call it more of an experience than a play,” says Allen, a founding member of the company. Written by British playwright Zinnie Harris and directed by Steppenwolf ensemble member Tina Landau, the play follows world-weary peasant Beatriz, played by Allen, as she attempts to return three lost children to their parents in war-torn 19th century Spain. At least, that’s how the story begins. From there the plot takes surreal leap after leap across time and space—and keeps audiences on their toes. “My one concern when I first read it was that it might not be emotional,” says Allen, “that audiences might think, ‘That’s interesting, it’s really intellectual, but I don’t care what’s happening to this woman.’ I talked to Tina, though, and she said, ‘No, no, it has to have heart and humor; that’s critical.’ Once we had that conversation, I thought, ‘Let’s try it.’” That The Wheel delivers on both fronts is a testament to Allen, whose performance is as subtle as it is impactful. Interestingly, the play’s theme is, to a degree, about returning home. “The city has changed so much since I lived here,” says Allen. “We were so busy in rehearsal that we didn’t have the opportunity to do much outside the theater, but one thing I did do is take a day to drive past all of the apartments I lived in during the ’70s and ’80s, and all of the places the theater had been, including the original space in Highland Park. It’s very good to be back to my roots, on that stage and in Chicago.”

Allen’s Hots
The Wendella Architecture Cruise, walking down Michigan Avenue, Millennium Park

Allen’s Nots
Her prospects for writing or directing: “No, no, I’m not a visionary that way. I help others bring those visions to life.”