I recently passed the 30 year milestone at my place of employ (what, you think I write up theatre for a living‽). Unsurprisingly, questions of retirement have started to cross my head, although I’ve still got a good 10 years to go). For many men, the sense of identity you get through your job is central to your life, and when you retire, that identity goes “poof”. What then? What do you hold on to? What anchors you?
I think that’s the question at the heart of the world premiere play, The Joy Wheel, by Ian McRae (FB), which just opened at the Ruskin Group Theatre (FB) in Santa Monica (and which we saw Sunday afternoon). The play explores the relationship between Stella and Frank Conlin. As the play opens, Frank is in the process of retiring from a 45 year career at some unnamed plant or factory, getting the retirement party, the de rigueur gold watch, and presumably the hearty handshake. This momentous occasion has unsettled Frank: he’s nervous about his future, and nervous about having to give the speech, and desperately needs his wife to hang on to. But Stella has been talked out of the house to participate in a community play — a mounting of a show very similar to The Vagina Monologues — and in doing so is getting in touch with parts of herself that she had long neglected or fogotten. Frank had been neglecting those parts as well, leaving the two of them to grow apart.
So where did Frank grab instead? His friend, Stew. Stew used to work with Frank at the factory but had been laid off for some unspecified reason (although there was an implication that he had gone at little batshit at work); he grew close to Frank after that, and after Stew’s wife left him. Stew is a prepper, a survivalist who believes that the government and society is out to get him, and who must establish elaborate bunkers and facilities in order to survive the coming apocalypse and repopulate the world. Stew has convinced Frank to drain his pool, and turn the space into an underground bunker, and to buy into his survivalist beliefs (which Frank does, a little half-heartedly).
Frank’s retirement brings everything to a head, however. Stella isn’t there for him, and he screws up his speech. Stella is drawn into the show, and the sphere of influence of her wisecracking liberal and liberated friend Margie, whose attitudes bring her into direct conflict to the toxic masculinity and attitudes of the prepper, Stew. It doesn’t help that Stella is upset about the pool conversion and the change in Frank.
With this setup, the play explores how Frank regains his anchor, and what happens to Stew when he loses his. The title of the play, The Joy Wheel, relates to an old-time spinning amusement park ride. If you’re at the edges, the centripetal force will spin you off. But if you can make it to that pole in the center and hold on, you’re stable. But if someone else grabs you along the way, you can lose your stability and go spinning off to the void.
This is the second show we’ve seen at Ruskin (the first was Paradise), and they are two for two. This production was funny and touching and just a joy to watch. As usual, there are many factors that contributed towards this.
Ian McRae’s story, under the direction of Jason Alexander, hit a realistic nerve. Although I do not understand the prepper mentality, I can understand your identity being closely tied to a long-held job (as I’ve been doing cybersecurity for 33 years), and being adrift when that identity goes away. I can also understand the couple in the show, growing apart as different interests, friends, and hobbies pull and tug at you, and try to get you to the edge of that wheel. I recognize the struggle shown in the show of holding onto that center: of figuring out what really keeps you stable in your life.
The point the show makes by its conclusion is a strong one: what keeps us centered isn’t our work, and it isn’t our hobbies. It is our closest relationships: the family we are born with, or the family we choose to make. That’s a good point.
The journey the show makes to get to that point — the journey that allows the central characters to find that pole and hold on (to use the metaphor of the title) — is an interesting one. Each character has something trying to pull them out of the central relationship. Stew is trying to pull Frank into the prepper world: questioning and trusting no one, believing that the world is out to get him. Margie is similarly tugging at Stella to get out into the liberated world, to pull away from Frank and his craziness and to explore the wild side of herself. Each are strong pulls, but the central relationship is like a novelty finger toy, tugging back the harder one tries to escape it. It makes for good theatre.
This brings us to the second factor that makes the show so good: the performances. I recall reading somewhere that the essence of performance for an actor is listening: listening to the audience, and listening to the other actors. This is one of the first shows where I really noticed the listening going on, and it made a big difference. If you see the show (and I suggest you should), watch the actors in the background as they listen and react to the performers in the foreground — especially in the final scenes. These performers are communicating the story non-verbally through their attention. It is fascinating to watch.
Portraying the central characters are Dann Florek (FB) as Frank Conlin and Gina Hecht (FB) as Stella Conlin. My wife likes to refer to LA Theatre as an actor’s playground — it is where actors from TV and film go out to play and exercise their acting muscles — and where we the audience benefit from their having fun. This was a prime example of these: these are two name actors primarily from the film and TV side who give remarkable performances, having loads of fun inhabiting these characters and playing off the other actors, and amplifying the audience. Further, as any audience member will tell you, when the actors are having fun, the audience has fun, and a performance feedback loop is created making the show even better.
Florek and Hecht make these characters come alive, and turn the potential caricatures into real people you might enjoy knowing in real life. You feel they have been married for 45+ years, that they know each other’s foibles and truly care about each others. It was fun to watch.
Supporting the central characters are Lee Garlington (FB) as Margie and Maury Sterling (FB) as Stew. Garlington’s Margie is a wise-cracking gem. As written by McRae, she has the words to fight back against the attitudes of Sterling’s Stew. What Garlington is able to add, however, is the perfect attitude to go with the lines. That attitude also shows is her interactions with Hecht’s Stella, subtly encouraging subversion through the wordless interaction on top of the written words. She is just a joy to watch. Sterling’s performance brings the appropriate level of paranoid and BSC to Stew (and what is it with folks named Stew being BSC — I know one from work as well). Yes, Stew is more of caricature, but the performance brings a nice depth to it.
This brings us to the third factor that makes the show work: creativity. The Ruskin is a tiny tiny space. Think of a rectangle with seating on two of the four sides. Around the rest they have to fit the set. Set designer John Iacovelli (FB) somehow figured out how to get both the inside of the house as well as the prepper’s pool into all of this. The figures to the right will give you an idea of the house set; for the prepper pool, they brought in rolling carts with all the prepper supplies, and arranged it so that the normal door in the back up a small flight of stairs was tilted at perhaps a 50° angle, increasing the perception you were going down into a pool. This necessitated complicated scenery changes, which the director, Jason Alexander, addressed by having a single character give their dialogue (essentially a brief monologue) with a single light on them, allowing the scene change to go on behind in the dark while the audience was distracted. It all worked well. This scenery was supported by the property design of Props Master David Saewert (FB). The lighting and sound design of Edward Salas worked well to establish time, place, and mood. Sarah Figoten‘s costumes seemed appropriate for the place and era, and worked to establish the characters well. Other production credits: Nicole Millar (FB) [Stage Manager]; Hamilton Matthews (FB) [Asst. Stage Manager]; Laura McRae (FB) [Asst. Director]; Amelia Mulkey Anderson [Graphic Design]; Paul Ruddy [Casting]; Judith Borne [Publicity]; Nina Brissey [Videographer]. The Joy Wheel was produced by John Ruskin [Artistic Director, RGT] and Michael Myers (FB) [Managing Director, RGT].
The Joy Wheel continues at Ruskin Group Theatre (FB) through March 24, 2019. It is a fun and enjoyable show; well-worth seeing. Tickets are available online through Ruskin; they do not appear to be listed on Goldstar.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), and the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
March starts with Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), followed by the annual MRJ Regional Man of the Year dinner at Temple Beth Hillel. The next weekend brings “Disney’s Silly Symphony” at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). The third weekend of March brings Cats at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The following weekend is Matilda at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) on Saturday, followed by Ada and the Engine at Theatre Unleashed (FB) (studio/stage) on Sunday. March concludes with us back at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Lastly, looking into April: The month starts with Steel Magnolias at Actors Co-op (FB) and the MoTAS Men’s Seder. The next weekend has a hold for OERM. April will also bring Fiddler on the Roof at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) and the annual visit to the Renaissance Pleasure Faire.
As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.