December 16 - August 31, $75 for six-play subscription
One of my best friends has a habit of shopping for all his holiday presents on Christmas Eve. This year, because of the pandemic lockdown, he chose to stay out of stores and, like so much of America, bought everything online. But for him and everyone else who missed the joy of wandering through aisles of chains and indies, fighting off other customers for that last coveted item on that quickly emptying shelf, Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company has gifted us with Wally World, a two-part audio-play soap opera that takes place in a big-box store on a long December 24. “Everybody’s happy on Christmas Eve,” not-so-nice manager Andy (Sandra Marquez) insists. Well, maybe not.
Wally World offers that last-minute-shopping experience as we eavesdrop on Andy, co-managers Amy (Audrey Francis) and Mark (Cliff Chamberlain), assistant managers Estelle (Jacqueline Williams), Ariadna (Sydney Charles), Jax (Kevin Curtis), Janie (Karen Rodriguez), Miguel (Marvin Quijada), and Dan (Danny Bernardo), and sales associate Karla (Leslie Sophia Perez), who get involved in all sorts of intrigue, from secret liaisons to juicy gossip, from karaoke Christmas songs to sexual harassment and a seizure. Writer-director Isaac Gómez and codirector Lili-Anne Brown take us around every nook and cranny in the store as the employees discuss personal and professional disappointment, their ancestry, a shooting at another location, vibrators, and how to correctly stack palettes. They also make some funny and unfortunate announcements over the PA system. “I fucking hate Barbies,” Andy admits accidentally. “If you need to defecate, please do so in one of our two bathrooms,” Mark points out. An accompanying guide helps identify each character, including their name, age, position, ethnicity, and zodiac sign; several are from US-Mexican border towns, as is Gómez (La Ruta, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter).
Originally commissioned and developed through the Sideshow Theatre Company Freshness Initiative and presented in a developmental workshop at a Texas festival in 2018, Wally World may not be about the pandemic, but it’s right for this moment, capturing that feeling we are all missing: Being around other people, whether random strangers or essential workers, during the holiday season. Shopping online and seeing family over Zoom is not quite the same thing. To maintain the holiday spirit, Christmas music can be heard throughout the show; you can listen to the Spotify playlist here, with songs by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, Michael Bublé, Ariana Grande, Sara Bareilles, Eartha Kitt, Kelly Clarkson, Sia, Kacey Musgraves, John Legend, and Mariah Carey. To get the audio just right, sound designer Aaron Stephenson visited a superstore with a recorder and, wearing a mask, taped different places and sound sources, from the bathroom and the checkout counter to walkie-talkies and the overhead speakers, making it feel like you’re moving through distinct spaces, which he describes in “Hearing the Snow Falling: A Glimpse into the Sound Design in Wally World.”
“It’s a play about my mom,” Gómez, who calls the show his “Walmart Chekhov,” says in the above conversation with Rodriguez and Steppenwolf artistic director Anna D. Shapiro. “My mom’s worked at Walmart for twenty-five years and has worked her way up from cashier to assistant department manager of lingerie to department manager of ladies wear to assistant manager to co-manager and to now store manager at one of the largest retail-focused Walmarts in the country, which is a huge deal. And her Walmart is situated right off of one of the border-crossing bridges, so the majority of her customers are not just from El Paso; they’re also from Juárez. I think there’s something prolific and beautiful and meaningful about these everyday people who had, and have, lives that are deeper beyond our understanding. . . . What brings them all together is a profound loneliness that I think so many of us share, and what connects them is that they feel less lonely when they’re together.”
An ensemble piece that feels like an inclusive group effort, that doesn’t feel like it was recorded with everyone facing separate cameras and showing up in separate Zoom boxes from wherever they’re sheltering in place, Wally World — named after the closed theme park that the Griswolds are driving to in National Lampoon’s Vacation — also takes us away from the screens we are all addicted to, especially during this health crisis, and encourages our imaginations to transport us into a public place where we are less lonely, making connections that bring us together. And that’s a present we all can use as 2020 finally comes to an end.