Steppenwolf’s ‘Wally World’ too vast in its scope, despite efforts of top-notch cast

The cast and creative team of “Wally World” includes: playwright/co-director Isaac Gómez (top row, from left), co-director Lili-Anne Brown, Danny Bernardo and ensemble member Cliff Chamberlain; Sydney Charles (second row, from left), Kevin Curtis, ensemble member Audrey Francis, ensemble member Sandra Marquez; Leslie Sophia Perez (third row, from left), Marvin Quijada, ensemble member Karen Rodriguez and Jacqueline Williams. | Provided

While the cast is excellent and the dialogue sharply recognizable to anyone who has worked in a big box store, “Wally World” flags in the telling. If you’ve ever worked retail or shopped on Christmas Eve, you’ll recognize the pressure-cooker world of “Wally World.”
It’s Dec. 24 at the Walmart-like big box store in Isaac Gómez’s El Paso, Texas-set audio play, and the understaffed, overworked, poorly compensated employees are scrambling. Children are hurling toys off shelves, adults are screaming because the pharmacy closed early for the holiday, delivery trucks are dumping palettes of merchandise in the back, and the whole place is under siege from frantic shoppers.

It falls to store manager Andy (Sandra Marquez), to keep the chaos under control. Her employees are dealing with a wealth of non-retail issues including dying in-laws, needy children, exhaustion and pregnancy among them. Merely getting through the break room gift exchange without triggering a sexual harassment lawsuit is a struggle.
Co-directed by Gómez and Lili-Anne Brown, “Wally World” is a valentine to the essential workers responsible in large part for making the Christmas presents possible and keeping people fed year-round. As assistant manager Janie (Karen Rodriguez) puts it while surveying the grocery department: “If it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t have food right now, would you?”
But while the cast is excellent and the dialogue sharply recognizable to anyone who has worked in a big box store and/or suffered through a mandatory company holiday party before their shift starts, “Wally World’s” impact is diluted by too many plot lines.
The primary issue is the wide scope Gómez attempts in his script. There are 10 characters, each with his or her own arc. That’s a lot of ground to cover, even with a run time of two-and-a-half hours. That’s a lot of characters to keep track of by voice alone, particularly for the first 20 minutes. (It helps to have a cheat sheet of characters for the first act, which Steppenwolf provides.) Some topics — such as a mass shooting at another Wally World location nearby — are broached too briefly. Others — there’s a whole lot of crackling walkie-talkie chatter — are little more than filler.
In all, “Wally World” sacrifices depth for quantity. The play isn’t propelled by an overarching plot; it’s more a series of loosely linked vignettes. Among the employees, there are aspiring attorneys, disappointed managerial candidates, cancer survivors, tentative romances, a serial sexual harasser and a would-be union organizer. The myriad stories are stretched thin as the drama veers from comedy toward tragedy and back again.
You can’t fault this cast. Marquez’s Andy is at the center of everything, from the Crockpot buffet in the break room to the endless “zoning” (cleaning up after customers) required throughout the massive store. Some of the best scenes are between Andy and co-manager Mark (Cliff Chamberlain, serving smarminess as thick as oil). You can’t see Andy when Mark tells her she’s “sexy when you’re working” or when he gives a box of condoms to a pregnant co-worker in the gift exchange. You don’t need to. Marquez is just that good. And keep an ear on Leslie Sophia Perez as the pregnant Karla. She’s an undergrad at DePaul with talent that indicates a major career is in the offing.
Rodriguez, too, is a highlight. She nails the comedy and the tragedy of the role, the former notably when she attempts to do a “lost child” announcement after hitting the tequila, and the latter in her scenes with assistant manager Miguel (Marvin Quijada). The two are powerful together, whether dealing with the vomitous results of eggnog abuse or tentatively making plans to visit a memorial to those slain in the shooting. Listen also for Jacqueline Williams, who is memorable as an assistant manager who often seems like the only adult in the room.
Sound designer Aaron Stephenson captures the (barely) controlled chaos of Wally World and the tangle of festivity and anger wrought from a holiday spent in a place nobody wants to be.
Technically, “Wally World” is top-drawer. But there’s too much going on in this massive store, and that makes it hard to really invest in its largely heroic employees.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.

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