An epic, three-part rumination on the life and works of the Midwest’s foremost master builder, Eric Simonson and Jeffrey Hatcher’s sweeping “Work Song” is as contradictory, unwieldy and as emotionally engrossing as Frank Lloyd Wright himself. The play will need some thematic tightening and much better casting before meriting future reconstruction, but it would be a pity if this rich and complex piece of theater became rubble after its Milwaukee close. Far superior to Robert Lepage’s esoteric musings on the same subject, the compelling “Work Song” captures much of the Lloyd Wright enigma without ever resorting to theatrical cliches about the hubris-filled constructions of egotistical architects.
Simonson has been working on the play for more than decade. The original intent was a collaboration with the late Chicago playwright Scott McPherson (“Marvin’s Room”). Eventually, Simonson hooked up with Hatcher, a prolific scribe with a raft of smaller plays to his credit, many penned for Midwestern nonprofits. The Steppenwolf Theater Co. is credited with co-commissioning this latest work with the Rep, but the Chi troupe has no announced plans to produce it. They should give that decision some more thought.
Lloyd Wright’s biography certainly invites dramatic treatment. Although he emphasized domestic spaces when his peers — like Louis Sullivan and Daniel Burnham — saw import only in large public buildings, Lloyd Wright is justly revered for his visionary ability to design houses that commune with their environmental contexts.
But if he was sensitive to the relationship between buildings and human beings, Lloyd Wright wasn’t himself as sensitive to other people. He viewed his employees — and even his mentors — as akin to the dirt he displaced, and was also an adulterous husband who sired seven children with assorted badly treated women.
On the grounds that their crusty subject ebbed and flowed for some 92 years, Simonson and Hatcher decided to offer, in chronological order, three pieces about Lloyd Wright at various stages of his life and career. Aside from doing away with the need to cover everything, the approach allows the authors to write in multiple styles. They clearly regard this as a useful way to see their subject from various angles.The first part of the evening tells the story of Lloyd Wright’s early career and failing first marriage in the standard manner of semi-fictional biographical drama. The second, more incisive work is set over two days during the height of Lloyd Wright’s creative powers and personal infamy. The third and best piece is set in 1957 in Oak Park, Ill., and conjures a 90-year-old Lloyd Wright trying to assuage personal ghosts and buy back one of his homes from the couple living there.
Although the authors argue that each act could stand alone, this is only really true of the last. “Work Song,” which cannot quite decide if it’s a three-act play or a suite of semi-connected dramas, is best viewed as a trio of disparate works intended to reflect the contradictions within the architect himself. All three of the pieces are interesting, but the first act is too familiar and prosaic (everything Lloyd Wright was not).
The moving final piece is capable of bringing a tear to the eye. Less fettered by realism, the Oak Park vignette leaves us with a powerful truth: the house in which we live can either empower us or deaden our dreams. Lloyd Wright understood deep human truths, the play argues, even as he destroyed most of the people he loved.
The work from the Milwaukee Rep’s resident troupe is uneven. Ernst is vocally fascinating as Lloyd Wright and conveys sufficient stature, but there are further emotional depths to mine. Some of the minor characters are broadly played, and the architect’s various female acolytes seem unsure of their roles at times. The best work of the night comes from the splendid Kristen Potter and Torrey Hanson, bringing to life a married couple whose souls are unlocked by the man who designed the extraordinary space in which they live.
Simonson is an imaginative director, and with the help of Kent Dorsy’s faux-Wright designs, he’s forged a weaving, restless if sometimes overly fussy production that feels like the work of a brilliant adolescent. In art, at least, Lloyd Wright knew the virtues of simplicity. With a few strokes in that direction, the wonderfully ambitious “Work Song” could soar.