Theater 2015-16: Steppenwolf 40th anniversary boasts premieres by Frank Galati, Tracy Letts
13th in a series of season previews: Frank Galati’s adaptation of Steinbeck’s novel “East of Eden” and new play from Tracy Letts in mix with three Chicago premieres.
By Lawrence B. Johnson and Nancy Malitz
Two world premieres and three first-time Chicago stagings form a doubly celebratory season at Steppenwolf Theatre – marking the company’s 40th anniversary and honoring the legacy of its longtime artistic director, Martha Lavey, who stepped down at the end of last season.
Steppenwolf rolls out its 2015-16 season with the world premiere of Frank Galati’s adaptation of “East of Eden,” John Steinbeck’s sweeping, tumultuous epic novel about family dynamics and fortunes set mainly in California in the first decades of the 20th century.
Says Jonathan Berry, the veteran Chicago director appointed last spring as Steppenwolf’s artistic producer: “To sit in that (rehearsal) room and watch Terry and Frank collaborating reminds me so much of what Martha would do – finding the visceral quality in the play, going for the broadness of ideas about the world we live in.”
Lavey served as Steppenwolf’s artistic director for 20 years. In October 2014 she announced that she was leaving that post and that longtime ensemble member Anna D. Shapiro would become artistic director at the start of the current season. It was Lavey who designed the 2015-16 lineup of plays.
The second world premiere, due in spring 2016, is “Mary Page Marlowe” by Steppenwolf ensemble member Tracy Letts, whose “August: Osage County” won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The new play unfolds as a personality profile of a seemingly unremarkable Midwestern woman, an accountant, who proves to be, like most people, a more intricate soul that surface impressions might suggest.
“This play is a change of direction for Tracy,” says Berry. “It’s a series of 12 scenes over a broken timeline that jumps back and forth in her life between the ages of 18 months and 69 years. Each scene reveals a bit more about who she is – and raises further questions about where she’s going.”
The 2015-16 season in brief:
- “East of Eden,” adapted by Frank Galati from the novel by John Steinbeck (World premiere, Sept. 26-Nov. 15): Escaping a turbulent past, Adam Trask is determined to make a new start in California’s Salinas Valley. Adam and his wife Cathy settle on a beautiful farm, and soon Cathy gives birth to twins Caleb and Aron. But family history, sibling rivalry and the impending danger of World War I will threaten their little piece of paradise. East of Eden is an epic tale that asks if it is possible to escape the mistakes of previous generations and choose your own course. “What Steinbeck wrote was an incredible collision between his human advocacy and his deep understanding about the raw messiness of human relations and emotion,” says Berry. “And there’s not a smarter or more generous mind than Frank Galati’s when it comes to dealing with things he’s interested in capturing on stage.”
- “Domesticated” by Bruce Norris (Chicago premiere, Dec. 12-Feb. 7, 2016): Politician Bill Pulver faces the cameras to stumble his way through a carefully crafted apology as his wife Judy stands stoically behind him. But what she’s really thinking is about to be revealed in Steppenwolf ensemble member Bruce Norris’s darkly funny, careening play about a marriage burst apart by a sex scandal. It’s a wild, scathing investigation of gender politics, modern marriage and the sexual mysteries of the animal kingdom. “There’s almost no such thing as a private life when you’re in the public eye, and Bruce satirizes all of that in this play,” says Berry. “He focuses on that increasing divide between what the public wants from people in the spotlight, and who they really are. And he’s an equal opportunity offender. ‘Domesticated’ is an incredibly funny play.”
- “The Flick” by Annie Baker (Chicago premiere, Feb. 13-May 8, 2016): Three underpaid employees sweep up stale popcorn in a run-down movie house called The Flick, one of the last theaters in Massachusetts still projecting 35mm films. For Avery, this isn’t a dead-end job. It’s a way to get closer to the art form he loves. Passionate debates about cinema lead to a friendship of sorts with co-workers Sam and Rose. But their tentative bond may be tested as they reveal what they actually need from each other. “The Flick” is about authentic connection, even when that is a fearful prospect. “Annie Baker has emerged as a really important voice in American theater,” says Berry. “Here she’s dealing with three people who are desperate for a sense of community, how they come together and fall apart. It takes time to unfold – a year — in what feels like real time. Baker’s dedication to the long game is admirable.”
- “Mary Page Marlowe” by Tracy Letts (World premiere, April 9-May 29, 2016): Mary Page Marlowe is an accountant from Ohio. She’s led an ordinary life, making the difficult decisions that come with figuring out who she really is and what she wants. Through glimpses of Mary’s life in moments both pivotal and mundane, a portrait of a complicated woman emerges. It is a time-lapse image of mystery, built from impulse and circumstance. “What’s important to Tracy is capturing the scope of a life,” says Berry. “He really delves into how we become who we are, in a beautiful and poignant way.”
- “Between Riverside and Crazy” by Stephen Adly Guirgis (Chicago premiere, July 2-Aug. 21, 2016): Ex-cop “Pops” Washington and his ex-con son Junior are barely holding on to one of the last great rent stabilized apartments in Manhattan. Pops has his hands (not to mention his apartment) full as he navigates a steady stream of sketchy houseguests and sweats out the impending verdict on his law suit against the police department. It’s a rowdy dark comedy that looks at the slippery nature of justice, and the grit it takes to finally move on. “This is a natural for Steppenwolf because Stephen writes remarkably bold and aggressive realism, which is the thing we built our foundation on,” says Berry. “It’s a volatile family drama with a bite at its center, which harkens back to our roots.”
Established in 1974, Steppenwolf built its present theater at 1650 North Halsted St. in 1991. Steppenwolf has grown into a company of 44 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 el by taking the Red Line to the North and Clybourn stop. Walk a half-block east to Halstead, then north one block.
- Official website of Steppenwolf Theatre: Steppenwolf.org
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