Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Tracy Letts’ newest Broadway play Linda Vista didn’t start out as a play at all. “It started with a little free writing,” he says. “I was surprised by the voice of this guy.”
Letts followed his curiosity and found Wheeler, a 50-something divorcé living in Southern California and re-entering the dating scene when he meets age-appropriate Jules and, in a different way, young-and-in-trouble Minnie.
“What drew me right away is Tracy’s ability to write fly-on-the-wall experiences that are deeply human, funny, raw, scary, but they’re all that because they’re very true,” says Cora Vander Broek, who plays Jules.
“He has great powers of observation about human behavior,” adds Ian Barford, who plays Wheeler, “and as actors it’s great to feel like there’s real dimension to your character.”
Those dimensions are a result of Letts’ introspection as he contemplated the ways in which he was similar and dissimilar to Wheeler. “I started to think about the ways in which, when it comes to my views on politics and culture, I think of my opinions as unimpeachable,” Letts explains. “And at the same time I’ve lied, cheated, not always conducted myself with integrity in personal relations. I started thinking about the dichotomy of that and thought that was worthy of exploration and then it grew into a bigger picture about the way we see ourselves and the way we see other people.”
But the fact that Wheeler is not clearly a hero or anti-hero is exactly the point. And Letts makes an argument that how we treat people is more about us and less about them. “I would hope that [audiences] would think about treating people with compassion, even people who don’t deserve it,” says Letts, “because it’s easy to give compassion to people who deserve it, it’s harder to give it to people who don’t.”
So Wheeler became a collection of contradictions. “He’s so complicated. He’s hilarious, he’s despicable, he’s noble, he’s awful. He’s very bright but he’s maybe not very evolved,” says Barford. But through Linda Vista, Barford sees a “spiritual awakening” through his character—evidence that maybe he is capable of change.
Wheeler’s story, according to Vander Broek, leads us to wonder: “Are you ever too old to come of age? That’s the question this play is asking.”