REVIEW: Wilson Wants It All (House Theatre of Chicago)

A smart show about an unlikely future


Ruth as Hope 1st Speech sharper

The House Theatre of Chicago presents

Wilson Wants It All

By Michael Rohd and Phillip C. Klapperich
Conceived and directed by Michael Rohd
At the
Chopin Theatre, West Town Through March 27 (more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

"The hard times, the drought…. A shortage so awful that private toilets eventually became unthinkable. A premise so absurd…”

Whoops! Wrong show. That’s from Urinetown, a smart, snappy musical comedy about a dystopian, near-future Hope and Mer w. Wilson on screenAmerica so plagued by overpopulation, water shortages and political upheaval that the government has banned private plumbing. Whereas in the play we’re supposed to be talking about, House Theatre’s Wilson Wants It All — a smart, snappy drama about a dystopian, near-future America plagued by overpopulation, water shortages and political upheaval — the government is working toward a ban on private procreation.

While a musical can get away with an absurd premise, when a drama predicts the near future, it needs basis in present-day facts. U.S. population growth, according to the Census Bureau, is "projected to decrease during the next six decades by about 50 percent." So you can’t credibly blame America’s economic woes on overpopulation, let alone create a crisis so severe that it could lead within 30 years to government-mandated birth control.

This might have been explained away — as, say, the result of a deliberate misinformation campaign, overpopulation as the weapons of mass destruction of 2040 — but it wasn’t. At the outset, then, suspension of disbelief suffers a blow, and the plot continues to batter at it until it unravels fully at play’s end.

Outside of the storyline, though, "Wilson" is a very fine piece of staged science fiction. The grim future world that Michael Rohd, artistic director of the Sojourn Theatre in Portland, Ore., sets out as director so trumps the plot he and The House’s Phillip C. Klapperich have conceived as playwrights that we spend most of Act I delighting in the set, properties and staging.

2 Hopes and Meredith News folks and Wilson

The audience comes in to a clean bare set arranged with six floor-to-ceiling white screens. Both live-action and recorded video intersperse with the staged scenes in fluid and imaginative ways, such as a horrifying interactive billboard that analyzes and reacts to individual consumers. These aren’t new concepts — authors like Frederik Pohl and Harry Harrison wrote about them in the 1960s — yet with many clever details Collette Pollard, the scenic designer, and Lucas Merino, the video designer, ingeniously extrapolate from contemporary devices to show us their terrifying technological future.

We also see some skilled performances. As a kind of Greek chorus of vapid media commentators, Joe Steakley, Elana Elyce, Maria McCullough, Emjoy Gavino, Abu Ansari and Michael E. Smith are right on target, timed to the instant, and add welcome lightness to the play. Wilson in elevator

Some other details of the script work very well, too. America is fragmented into seven political parties. Hardly anyone uses surnames. Most of the characters act younger than their ages. It’s the bigger picture and the major plot lines that don’t make sense.

In Act I, we meet the sprightly Leslie Frame as Ruth: unemployed, 30 years old, and hoping to make a difference in her world. A wan Carolyn Defrin plays her fond, worried but rather naively unworldly mother, Meredith, and Edgar Miguel Sanchez boyishly portrays her earnestly political but inept and — it proves — fickle boyfriend, Remy.

At the other end of the scale, Rebekah Ward-Hays determinedly plays Hope, also 30, the orphaned daughter of a charismatic senator assassinated on the day of her birth. Wilson, the senator’s keen political strategist, laconically portrayed by John Henry Roberts, has been grooming Hope all her life to step into her father’s shoes. An army of aides, headed by Bryan (Kevin Crowley), stand ready to meet her every need. She’s America’s darling, its dream of delivery, and now it’s her time to come forward.

Yet Hope’s not so sure she wants the life Wilson has in store for her. And at the moment of decision, she discovers her Doppelgänger. This futuristic, feminine remake of "The Prince and the Pauper" has potential; the ultimate unveiling of Ruth, Hope and Meredith’s relationship, though tawdry and predictable, has roots in real-life situations.

But by the second act, when the charm of the stagecraft has begun to wear off, revelations of decades-long unrealized love, selfless conspiracy and the ultimate solution ring untrue.


Rating: ★★★



3 Responses

  1. sorry- not a response to your perspective on the show,
    just your incorrect statement of facts

    from the site you linked to-

    ” The U.S. population is growing larger.

    Based on the middle-series projections, the Nation’s population is projected to increase to 392 million by 2050 — more than a 50 percent increase from the 1990 population size. During the 1990’s, the population is projected to grow by 27 million, a 10.8 percent increase. This assumes that fertility, mortality, and net immigration would continue to reflect recent trends. Only during the 1950’s were more people added to the Nation’s population than are projected to be added during the 1990’s. Using the lowest assumptions, the population would grow slowly, peak at 293 million by 2030, then gradually decline. Conversely, the highest series projects the population to increase quite steadily over the next several decades, more than doubling its 1990 size by the middle of the next century.

    The U.S. population growth rate is slowing.

    Despite these large increases in the number of persons in the population, the rate of population growth, referred to as the average annual percent change,1 is projected to decrease during the next six decades by about 50 percent, from 1.10 between 1990 and 1995 to 0.54 between 2040 and 2050. The decrease in the rate of growth is predominantly due to the aging of the population and, consequently, a dramatic increase in the number of deaths. From 2030 to 2050, the United States would grow more slowly than ever before in its history.”

    Yes, the growth rate is slowing
    but note- most projections, including this one, have us close to 400 million by 2050

    check in with any urban planning/city planning office in any major metropolitan area in the US- there is no plan on the books, anywhere, for where that many people will live in this country in our major urban areas- we don’t have the housing, the power or the resources if population concentrations continue to line up as they have been..

    if you dig into those conversations with experts, population growth , resources, quality of life equity, and legislative response is actually quite a concern.

    gotta get your facts right if you’re gonna base a response to a show on facts- its a fantasy piece, but its not without research behind it.

    thanks for reading.


  2. Thanks for offering your perspective, Mr. Rohd.

    There’s not room to seriously debate economic and political issues in a theater review, but my facts are quite correct, as you quote: “The U.S. population growth rate is slowing.”

    Whether it’s slowing sufficiently to stem societal woes due to overpopulation is a matter of interpretation, and of course, there’s lots of room for disagreement there — people who are far more expert on these matters than a playwright and a theater critic don’t agree, either.

    However, you began your play with our present-day crises, and whatever the projections, America’s current economic woes cannot reasonably be blamed on overpopulation.

    Further, when it comes to believability in drama, what’s factual is less important than what audiences know. In 1973, when “Soylent Green” horrified filmgoers, overpopulation had been a significant issue of public debate, filling everyday news. Today, whether or not it deserves to be, it is not. (A Google News search I just did on the term brought up more articles on feral cats than people.)

    I could wish you had more bravely addressed the high-level corporate and political greed that was among the biggest contributors to our current economic meltdown. I submit this will have far more adverse effect on our economy and quality of life for years to come than population issues (especially if Congress doesn’t act to stem the possibilities of, for instance, the recent Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission). I can see, however, that wouldn’t have created such an easy dramatic path to a single polarizing issue.

    But your play suffers for it.

  3. […] Day – Strawdog Theatre Company (review ★★) Wilson Wants It All – The House Theatre of Chicago (review […]

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