|Ian Barford as Wheeler | Craig Schwartz|
‘Linda vista’ is Spanish for ‘pretty view.’
Though San Diego might seem like an idealized setting, the contents of this story are far from pretty.
Prior to entering the theatre I heard two young people, somewhere in their young 20s, talking about the show. “It’s about a guy who has a huge midlife crisis.”
Linda Vista, at the Mark Taper Forum until Feb. 17, written by Tracy Letts and directed by Dexter Bullard, follows antihero Wheeler (played by Ian Barford) as he attempts to construct a completely different version of his life, brick by brick, in the midst of his divorce. Certain audience members would tell you Wheeler’s a pessimist, others: a realist. Wherever you land, it was immediately pretty easy to see that this character is hard to love.
The preshow involves Wheeler and his friend Paul (Tim Hopper) moving Wheeler out of his wife’s garage and into his new two bedroom apartment in Linda Vista. Wheeler has a bad hip, a constant reminder of his age and his eventual dependence on someone else, and Paul, off the bat, seems to be a pretty agreeable guy, the kind of guy who doesn't mind helping a buddy move out of a garage. As the men carry in boxes, Wheeler’s limp intensifying as time goes on, the stage slowly rotates, revealing different rooms and angles of the apartment. This rotating stage is not only a nice nod to the constant marching on of time (whether you’re ready or not to move on, the earth continues spinning and all that), but it also gives us a particularly intimate look at the characters on stage, especially Wheeler. It feels exposing to be able to examine every inch of his new home, messy and unpacked. The staging combined with the incredibly natural, contemporary dialogue often had me feeling as if I was eavesdropping on someone’s personal breakdown rather than an audience member in a theatre.
We watch Wheeler clumsily settle into his new home and his new role of “Man Going Through A Divorce.” In the same breath he uses to pick up (younger) women he’s sure to include how he’s in no place to seriously get involved with someone (His life is such a mess!). Barford takes us inside the heart and soft underbelly of this very specific man we’ve all met. He’s smart, defensive, terrified.
Enter: Jules (played by Cora Vander Broek), a life coach who sees Wheeler. She opens him up and we, along with Jules, begin to see why he’s possibly easy to love after all. Vander Broek is believable and interesting through and through. When she begins to love Wheeler, we trust him because she does. When she is hurt by him, so are we.
When people start to feel reckless, it’s not unusual to gain momentum. By the time Wheeler sleeps with Minnie, the young pregnant woman (Chantal Thuy) he takes in, the audience is excited to watch him burn.
He loses Minnie, someone he believed was a kindred spirit, he loses Jules because she learns to respect herself, he lost his ex-wife in what’s, by the end of the show, being referred to as a “messy divorce,” and he’s losing his teenage son to distinctly degrading porn.
The female characters in the story are hearty and fleshed out. The actresses playing them breathed life into their characters as actresses can only do when their parts feel like real people. Some of the feminist rhetoric in the show, though, felt tacked on. I was having a hard time putting my finger on why exactly.
Then I read an interview with the show's star, Barford, in the playbill. One of the questions asked Barford about how the story's evolved since the original 2017 production.
"... a lot has changed. #MeToo happened, which reframes some of the gender dynamics of the play–though the play is not about #MeToo, per se–and we are all different people, too. Tracy has now been afforded the time to hone, clarify, sharpen, and flesh out the play."
Ah, there it is.
Linda Vista is about a guy who has a huge midlife crisis. It’s about the walls we put up in an effort to feel safe, growing older but not wiser, self-awareness, and striving to be present. If a man like Wheeler can learn to listen (the jury's still out on if he can), it is also possible to pen full female characters who don't spout feminist rhetoric simply for the sake of keeping up with a movement.