Accurately, if incompletely, described in a press release as "an erotic chamber musical," Wilder is set in a Depression-era bordello, and its entire structure extends the themes of sparseness and desperate improvisation of the era. The cast is limited to three actors--John Cullum, Lacey Kohl, and Jeremiah Miller--each playing multiple roles, while two of the play's three writers play the only musical accompaniment.
Beyond its economical advantages and creation of an intimate environment, double-casting serves an important metaphorical function. Kohl plays both the mother and the object of sexual desire of the young Wilder Jessup (Miller). The older Wilder Jessup (Cullum), besides serving as narrator, is also the anonymous john who turns both Wilder's mother and his fantasy into whores.
The show's Oedipal overtones and vague sense of guilt and responsibility could seem trite, especially in a musical, but writers Erin Cressida Wilson, Jack Herrick, and Mike Craver use subtlety and even a little humor to avoid the more hackneyed clichés. Many of the songs are modeled after Southern murder ballads and the work of Sam Shepard. Others, like "Skater Scout," which ends with Wilder's first wet dream, are so over the top and cartoonish that their barely concealed double entendres seem ironic--and even a little nostalgic--rather than like an awkward junior-high joke.
Cullum is superb as the older Wilder and in various other roles, outshining the other two members of the cast, who are a little too earnest in their diction and gestures. That earnestness works better for Miller as the awkward but intense adolescent, but Kohl's characters could use a little more ennui and a little less hyperbole.
However, Kohl's prostitutes Jessie Jessup and Melora Mayfield owe nothing to the stock prostitutes: the fallen angel, the whore-with-the-heart-of-gold, the battered woman. Wilson suggests that Melora in particular is simultaneously amused and saddened by being the object of fantasy. As a result, she is much more complicated and much more interesting than those two-dimensional models the writers could easily have reverted to.
Eroticism is an important, if not the most important, theme of the play, and Wilson's work as a whole. Even without knowledge of Wilson's theories of erotic aestheticism, audiences find subtle traces of it in the character's speech, motivations, and non-sexual actions. However, it is notable that the set is limited to a single room, a bedroom, and there is often deliberate ambiguity as to who inhabits it.
When the room represents Wilder's home, it is as an attic in the "bright house," the brothel near his childhood home, also serving (conveniently) as an obvious but under-emphasized symbol of loneliness and isolation. The literal and figurative experience was inspired by stories told to Wilson by her father about his own experiences growing up as a virtual orphan during the Depression after his own father was arrested and his mother went to work as a maid. Considering the direct confrontation with Wilder's sexual awakening, Wilson's revelation of the source material is more than a little disturbing, but why question what works so well?