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Stepping Out With Steppenwolf

Chicago’s acclaimed Steppenwolf Company returns to the National Theatre, with August: Osage County, Tracy Letts’ five-time Tony Award-winning diabolically funny family drama set in rural Oklahoma. Michael Coveney looks forward to an overdue comeback.

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When playwright Tracy Letts went up on the stage of Radio City Music Hall in New York, last June to collect his Best New Play Tony Award – one of six won by August: Osage County – he remarked on the uniqueness of the occasion: a new American play on Broadway featuring a cast of all-American theatre actors had won through at last. No kidding, no celebs.

Blown in from the Windy City

Of course, what the New York Times described as “the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years” didn’t actually originate on Broadway. It started in Chicago, the Windy City, and home of the Steppenwolf Company, where Letts – best known here for his audaciously horrible sex-and-violence play, Killer Joe – is one of the 40-strong ensemble of actors, writers and directors who constitute the most remarkable ongoing project in the American theatre.

Steppenwolf is like our Royal Court and Hampstead Theatre rolled into one, yet it is an operation floated entirely on private subscription and dedicated to a local audience who have seen actors over the years – founder members Gary Sinise and John Malkovich, Joan Allen, Laurie Metcalf, John Mahoney (the old dad in Frasier), Amy Morton, Tom Irwin, Lois Smith and Rick Snyder – who represent the nearest North America has come to a permanent ensemble outside of the festival theatre in Stratford, Ontario.

One of Steppenwolf’s current luminaries, Deanna Dunagan, had never appeared on Broadway in a career of over 30 years until she hit town as a nightmarish maternal figure in August and scooped the Best Actress Tony. She’s one of eight of the original cast (out of 13) bringing the play to the National Theatre at the end of this month – the others include Amy Morton, a key associate artist in the ensemble, founding member Jeff Perry and the extravagant, ginger-haired Rondi Reed, who won the Best Featured Actress Tony. So we should be in for a treat, even if the three-hour-plus Weston family saga in rural Oklahoma sounds as joyously uplifting as an extreme version of Long Day’s Journey Into Night spattered with outtakes from Sam Shepard’s bad blood feasts in Buried Child and Curse of the Starving Class.

Post-Bush conversations

Before they packed their bags for London, I went looking for reassurance over the telephone in Chicago with the show’s director, Anna D Shapiro, and Steppenwolf artistic director Martha Lavey. They were not immediately encouraging. “We will arrive just after our country has elected a new president,” says Shapiro, “and we are concerned about what might happen. Gloom will be an understatement to describe our condition should Barack Obama not win. We have so much racism still in this country, and we need a higher level of conversation about everything after the Bush years.”

The play’s title, she explains, signifies historic, cultural crossroads that affect all Americans: “‘August’ means the end of something, while ‘Osage’ is an indigenous people’s term for the place where they live and ‘County’ stands for the colonial assignment by the other people who displaced them. This play had been stewing in Tracy Letts’ mind for years and by the time we got to workshops with the company – we had two of those – the whole process evolved organically and fairly straightforwardly.”

Kansas-born Martha Lavey joined the ensemble in 1993 and succeeded to the top job two years later. She, too, like the play, is much occupied with the question of “what does it mean to be an American?”. She worries that fundamentalism, whether in religious or economic beliefs, shuts down conversation and even “access to our psyche, to that zone of our experience that is intuitive.” This is where the theatre comes in? “Absolutely right. And this particular play represents the culmination of a lot of our work over the past few years. I would say, too, it shows our company at its very best.”

London calling

London expects nothing less, having seen Steppenwolf several times over the years. In 1986, the company collaborated with Hampstead Theatre on Lyle Kessler’s Orphans, directed by Gary Sinise, in which Albert Finney gave one of his finest stage performances as a kidnapped businessman whom two hoodlum brothers (one of them played by ensemble member Kevin Anderson, the original Joe Gillis in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard) think will lead them to untold fortune.

Orphans combined elements of David Mamet and Sam Shepard, signature playwrights at Steppenwolf. I first saw the company on their first visit to New York in 1982. A colleague tipped me off about a couple of promising guys playing in Shepard’s True West at the Cherry Lane theatre down in the Village. The guys were Sinise and Malkovich, and they were electrifying, like vintage voltage. Sinise spends most of his time these days playing Mac Taylor in the cult television crime drama series CSI: NY, but is scheduling a Steppenwolf return next season. Malkovich followed True West by conquering Broadway in 1983 as Dustin Hoffman’s son in Death of a Salesman and the rest you know.

Lavey says that the visit to the National with August is negotiated directly, by-passing the slew of commercial producers who made the Broadway transfer possible. “We felt this was the right thing to do, and we’re honoured to be returning to the Lyttelton stage where the company enjoyed such a wonderful success in 1989.” That success was with John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, another Oklahoma epic, with the Joad farming family migrating from the dust bowl to California; a company of 35 actors was led by Sinise in the Henry Fonda film role of Tom Joad, the pioneering labour organiser who memorably declares, “a fellah ain’t got a soul of his own, only a piece of a big one”.

Anna Shapiro was the assistant director on the company’s revival of Moss Hart and George Kaufman’s classic Broadway comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner which came to the Barbican ten years ago with John Mahoney playing the monstrous Sheridan Whiteside. And in 2000, Steppenwolf was back with the best ever production of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Gary Sinise as Randle P McMurphy and Amy Morton, Nurse Ratchet. With all due respect to the RSC (who later did the first play) and Christian Slater and co (who did the second), these were definitive powerhouse ensemble events unmatched by our own local versions; not even close.

Herman Hesse name-check

Steppenwolf is so named because one of the three young founder members (Sinise, Terry Kinney or Jeff Perry; Malkovich joined the expanded founding group of nine in June 1975) was reading the Herman Hesse novel at the time. They were all friends at Highland Park, Illinois, and formed the non-profit theatre in the basement of a Catholic school. After playing in two small theatres in Chicago, they moved to the current location at 1650 North Halsted Street in 1991.

Today, Steppenwolf has three theatres – one 500-seater, one 300-seater, both proscenium stages, and an 80-seat black box – over 20,000 subscribers (paying upwards of $130 for a five-play deal), a 50-50 split between earned income and donations from individuals and foundations, and an ideal setting in the heart of Lincoln Park with a plenitude of restaurants and jazz clubs and easy access to the lakeside beaches and bike trails.

So they should feel happily at home on our own buzzing South Bank. “We are so excited about coming,” says Shapiro. “Going to Broadway was, curiously enough, a sort of foreign experience for us. But maybe we don’t think London is so foreign. For all of us, Steppenwolf is our artistic home and creative family, and you know what that means at the National and the RSC. I just hope we have the right president to top things off!” And so they have…

August: Osage County opens on 26 November 2008 (previews from 21 November) at the NT Lyttelton, where it continues until 21 January 2009. A version of this article appears in the current November issue of What’s On Stage magazine, which is available now in participating theatres. Click here to thumb through our online version. And to guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatre Club - click here to subscribe now!!


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