If you've ever faced down an angry driver vying for the last open parking spot near a store entrance, you know how obsessed we modern humans are with the avoidance of walking. That's why it's good to pause and reflect on the joys of bipedal locomotion in Wanderlust: A History of Walking, now playing at Cleveland Public Theatre.
This world premiere, adapted by Matthew Earnest from an identically titled book by Rebecca Solnit, is a stimulating freeform collection of observations, quotes, and snatches of scenes involving walking that cover the globe and all of human history. If that sounds exhaustive (and exhausting), it is — this is no walk in the park for the audience. But the rewards are immense, even if you ultimately feel you've missed some of the moments.
Beginning with the group of paleontologists that unearthed the bones of Lucy (our ancient forbear who unquestionably strolled in some form on her hind legs), the play, like a good walk, meanders and follows its own impulses. By turning into this interesting alleyway and following that enticing bend in the road, the immediate subjects continually shift, but the overall focus remains steady.
From a walking tour at the Acropolis in Athens and a streetwalker in Brooklyn to Walt Whitman's words ("Afoot and lighthearted, I take to the open road") and people doing the cakewalk dance, the play is a paean to the glory of action, as well as the convergence of walking and thinking. Indeed, it posits that we perambulate and cogitate at the same speed, around 3 mph. While texters and tweeters might disagree with such a slow pace, remember that we're talking about actually thinking.
All this is infused with the manic imagination of director Earnest, who can turn the blandest scene into a visual amusement and often a revelation. The seven-person cast animates Lucy's bones so we can see her walk, cavorts stylishly in their loose-dirt sandbox of a set, and even gives us a bird's-eye view of Solnit as she writes at her desk. Plus, Earnest's staging of a Las Vegas family vacation is hilarious, and the conclusion is startling and absolutely perfect.
The players, who handle countless character fragments and are completely plugged in to Earnest's inspired vision, include Trae Hicks, Nicole Perrone, Jonathan Ramos, and Adam Thatcher. Pandora Robertson is tender and wistful as an English lady off on a jaunt to buy a pencil, and Kevin Charnas drills his take on a sassy curbside whore. As Lucy, among others, the ridiculously young and remarkably talented Alexis Generette Floyd proves she can do anything — play the violin, walk on walls — and do it well.
You may repeatedly find yourself a step behind the show's intense kinetic pace, still musing over that last Jean-Jacques Rousseau quote while watching a woman in a blonde wig being importuned on a table top. But once you open yourself to unexpected possibilities (remember, this is a "walk"), Earnest's thrilling theatrical chops should make you kick your heels in glee.
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