So it’s a mystery that Isaac Gómez’s radio play “Wally World” is such a pleasantly relaxing experience, even if it thrives on tension in the workplace. From the first notes of Christmas music at the top of the show (the jazzy “O Tannenbaum” by the Vince Guaraldi Trio from “A Charlie Brown Christmas”) to the first static charge on the walkie-talkies that keep the store’s management team connected , we feel that we are in good hands.
Like many a Christmas story, this sprawling ensemble Dramedy – directed by Gómez and Lili-Anne Brown for the Steppenwolf Theater Company – has someone at its center who is lost. Andy (Sandra Marquez) spent 23rd Christmas Eve in this Wally world in El Paso, Texas, working his way up to general manager and terribly leading a whole team of MPs. The problem is that the austerity that helped her stand up clouded her vision and slowed her compassion.
As a kind of cousin of the sitcom “Superstore”, “Wally World” hits a lot better than the off Broadway musical “Walmartopia”. This piece is a fiction, but for Gómez (“the way she spoke”) a very personal one: his mother also worked her way up from cashier to manager at a Walmart in El Paso. “Wally World” is a portrait of a place he knows – so well that he fails to explain some of its jargon.
Andy’s shop is understaffed this Christmas Eve. You might think the added pressure is messing everyone up, but that only goes for the factual Estelle throughout. In a standout by Jacqueline Williams, she is the figure we root the hardest – especially when she reports that “real velociraptors are destroying our store”.
Barely a second is Jax (the great Kevin Curtis), an assistant manager who begins his workday with aplomb by insulting senior Mark (Cliff Chamberlain) who is a sexual harassment lawsuit waiting to happen.
“Wally World” (two hours and 20 minutes) has a cast of 10 people who threatens to overwhelm the medium: so many voices to learn. But the performances are almost equally strong and Aaron Stephenson’s sound design is remarkably thoughtful.
So it’s easy to go along with, although Janie (Karen Rodriguez) isn’t credibly written as the bunch’s barely-functioning alcoholic, while Karla (Leslie Sophia Perez), the only sales rep we meet, appears to be more of an action tool than a person. There is a charming romantic subplot, however, and the ending is satisfying without being overly cute.