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Theater 2013-14: Joan Allen’s return and five premieres will light marquee at Steppenwolf

Submitted by on Sep 2, 2013 – 3:27 pm

Edgar Miguel Sanchez, Demetrios Troy, Scott Stangland, Joan Allen and La Shawn Bank in rehearsal for 'The Wheel' at Steppenwolf (Thomas Weitz)Eighth in a series of season previews: Making first appearance in more than two decades, company co-founder Allen will star in American premiere of Zinnie Harris’s “The Wheel.”

By Lawrence B. Johnson

In a 2013-14 season that artistic director Martha Lavey promises will “make you laugh out loud and think deeply about how we live and love,” Steppenwolf Theatre offers two world premieres and two Chicago premieres – and to open the season an American premiere featuring the long-deferred homecoming of veteran ensemble member Joan Allen.

Playwright Bruce Norris, center, who works often with Steppenwolf, is pictured in a 2011 rehearsal with director Amy Morton for 'Clybourne Park.' (Joel Moorman) The season opener, Zinnie Harris’s “The Wheel,” a supernatural trek through time and wars as a woman seeks to reunite a little girl with her father, will star Joan Allen in her first appearance at Steppenwolf in 22 years.

“We are thrilled to have Joan back with us,” says Martha Lavey, “and I knew when I read the play that (ensemble member and director) Tina Landau would be so wonderful in creating the conceptual landscape for this epic story.”

The two world premieres come at season’s end: Mona Mansour’s “The Way West,” a play with song that connects America’s legendary westward migration with hard realities of the present day, and Bruce Norris’s “The Qualms,” about a group of friends getting together for their regular evening of food, drink, drugs and partner-swapping.

“There are important conversations to come out of these plays, about who we are,” says Lavey. “There will be some commonality. Family is a theme, but that is something we tend to discover after a season is chosen. These five strong and distinctive plays will lead the discussion.”

The 2013-14 season in brief:

  • Emma Gordon and Joan Allen in a poster image for 'The Wheel' by Zinnie Harris, set for American premiere at Steppenwolf in 2013.“The Wheel” by Zinnie Harris (American premiere, Sept. 12-Nov. 10): Premiered by the National Theatre of Scotland in 2011, Harris’s is a spellbinding story of what happens to hope and human nature in times of war. On a 19th century Spanish farm, Beatriz is happily preparing for her sister’s wedding when the house is overrun by soldiers. In the chaos, she finds herself the guardian of a young girl. Beatriz’s determination to reunite the child with her father sweeps both along on a journey across war zones and through time. And what begins as a simple act of kindness takes on a surprise twist when the girl acquires curious powers. “In what appears to be a realistic world, the central characters are not bound by the reality of a lifespan,” notes Lavey. “It’s a huge invitation to a directorial vision of visual metaphors and soundscapes.” The production will mark Joan Allen’s first appearance at Steppenwolf since 1991, when she played in Frank Galati’s adaptation of Anne Tyler’s novel “Earthly Possessions.”
  • Russell Harvard on opening night of off-Broadway 'Tribes' in March, 2012. He is set to reprise the role of Billy at Steppenwolf in 2013. (David Gordon, Theatermania.com)“Tribes” by Nina Raine (Chicago premiere, Dec. 5-Feb. 9, 2014): This sharp, witty story about finding the place where you can be heard — and the family where you belong – premiered in London in 2010. An Off-Broadway run in 2012, directed by David Cromer, starred Russell Harvard, who also heads Steppenwolf’s cast as Billy. The young man’s intellectual and proudly eccentric English family is its own tiny empire with its private languages, in jokes and fiery arguments. Billy, deaf since birth, is the only one who truly listens. When he meets his girlfriend Sylvia, he is introduced to a larger deaf community, which sparks a struggle for self-identity and rebellion against his family. “It’s a very touching and complex investigation of family, a play we should pay attention to,” says Lavey. Alana Arenas will portray Billy’s girlfriend with Francis Guinan as the young man’s self-absorbed father. Austin Pendleton will direct.
  • Poster for world premiere of 'Russian Transport' by Erika Sheffer at off-Broadway Theater Row in NY 2012. The play is set for a new production at Steppenwolf in 2014.“Russian Transport” by Erika Sheffer (Chicago premiere, Feb. 6-May 11, 2014): A rowdy Russian family in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, is on a constant quest to achieve the American dream. When Uncle Boris arrives from the old country, his mysterious business ventures force the family to decide just how far they are willing to go to come out on top. A dark and edgy glimpse into the modern American immigrant experience, “Russian Transport,” which premiered Off-Broadway in 2012, is also a funny, passionate drama about family that slyly transforms into an intense thriller. “This is Erika Sheffer’s first play, and when I read it I was taken aback by how fresh, profane and dangerous the story is,” says Lavey. “It’s about sex trafficking of 14-year-old Russian women – played out against the daily struggle of a Russian family trying to fulfill their American dream through hard work. The father runs a car service. He has a 14-year-old daughter and an 18-year-old son who works in a cellphone store. Uncle Boris arrives from the old country with an offer to make a lot of money. But what is the value of making money? That’s the hard question.” Ensemble member Yasen Peyankov directs.
  • Playwright Mona Mansour's 'The Way West' is set to receive its world premiere at Steppenwolf in 2014.“The Way West” by Mona Mansour (world premiere, April 3-June 8, 2014): In a modern-day California town that’s seen better days, Mom shares death-defying tales of pioneer crossings with her two squabbling adult daughters as she waits for her bankruptcy to come through. Punctuated by original prairie songs, this funny and poignant play about today’s American family explores the mixed heritage of our great frontier spirit, the stuff of both self-delusion and survival. “We see this woman who is hapless with finances whose successful daughter in Chicago comes out to California to help,” says Lavey. “The mother is a big fan of frontier stories and songs – the American fantasy of manifest destiny, even while her own place is falling out from under her.” Ensemble member Amy Morton directs.
  • Playwright Bruce Norris's 'Qualms' is set to receive its world premiere at Steppenwolf in 2014.“The Qualms” by Bruce Norris (world premiere, July 3-Aug. 31, 2014): Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Bruce Norris returns to Steppenwolf following the hit “Clybourne Park” in 2011 and a string of Steppenwolf world premieres, among them “A Parallelogram,” “The Pain and the Itch” and “Purple Heart.” At a beachside apartment complex, a group of friends gather for their regular evening of drinks, drugs and interchangeable sex. When Chris and Kristy attempt to become the newest members, the evening does not go as planned. The party devolves into a territorial battle over mating privileges. Does sex ruin everything? And what is the purpose of monogamy? Pulitzer Prize-winning author Bruce Norris’s comedy explores the eternal struggle for power and status. “Bruce is a social satirist who asks us to look at the way we live and act – who we say we are measured against what we actually do,” says Lavey. “The play has a big heart. In the end, this group of people show a kind of integrity in their compassion for one another.” Director Pam MacKinnon, who staged “Clybourne Park” last season on Broadway, returns to Steppenwolf following her production of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” which recently closed on Broadway.

Steppenwolf TheatreGetting there:

Established in 1974, Steppenwolf built its present theater at 1650 North Halsted St. in 1991. Steppenwolf has grown into a company of  43 ensemble members whose strengths include acting, directing, play writing and textual adaptation. Now in its fourth decade as a professional theater company, Steppenwolf has received numerous national and international awards, including a series of Tony Awards, and The National Medal of Arts. The theater is easily reached via the L by taking the Red Line to the North and Clybourn stop. Walk a half-block east to Halstead, then north one block.
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