It’s one of the biggest existential questions for those who live in comfort in the First World, while war and poverty rage elsewhere. “How do we reconcile our nice lives with the fact that so many people go through complete misery?” British playwright Zinnie Harris ponders.
She has turned to theatre to answer that question. Since 2005, Harris has written four plays about civilian life in times of conflict, two of which will be given their U.S. premieres in Chicago this season. One of them, Solstice, about a family navigating a war-torn world, will be mounted in January at A Red Orchid Theatre.
Meanwhile, Harris’s play The Wheel premieres through Nov. 10 at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, directed by Tina Landau. It begins in a small Spanish village, where a woman named Beatriz takes it upon herself to reunite a mute, nameless girl with her father. The ensuing journey takes the two women across decades and nations, through the biggest conflicts of the 20th century. In the Steppenwolf production, the notion of space and time are conveyed through simple set pieces and stark iconography—piles of shoes for World War II and conical hats for the Vietnam War. The heroines’ hemlines become stained with mud and their hair gradually becomes unbound. The play has a cast of 17, who also play instruments and sing.
The Wheel, commissioned by the National Theatre of Scotland and first produced in 2011, was nominated for a Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in 2012. Though the play has multiple themes—most prominently the cyclical nature of human conflict—its central thread is childhood and the loss of innocence. The motif of a woman shepherding children through war is borrowed from Brecht.
“Mother Courage is the story of a woman with three children, who loses them through the course of a war,” Harris explains. “I think the other story of war is that it orphans children. The Wheel is Mother Courage in reverse.”
The Wheel’s Beatriz (played by Joan Allen, a Steppenwolf company member who is returning to that stage after a two-decade absence) eventually gains three orphaned children through her long travels, and the crux of the play is her attempt to defend them against the corrupting influence of war.
The Wheel asks whether humanity is doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. To Harris—herself a mother of three—children represent a second chance. They give the play its hope. “We always get a chance to enter into conflicts differently,” she says. “And as we raise our children, we hope that through the things we have learned, we can make a difference the second time around.”