I don’t remember why, but Steppenwolf was on my horizon when I moved to Chicago, but it took me a while to get there. I was working on a show in Hyde Park, and one of the actors had directed the student show at Steppenwolf, Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge. Aside from the students who threw coins from the balcony onto the stage (prompting one of the actors, W. Earl Brown, to threaten to come up there and beat someone up, and the idiotic comment from the theatre critic from the Reader, Mary Shen Barnidge, who defended the students by saying, “People threw things in Shakespeare’s day, too,” I really enjoyed the play. Later that night, I saw the mainstage production featuring the guy who played the killer in The Silence of the Lambs, a series of unintelligible accents, and a car crashing into the set at the end (on purpose), and I hated it. Such was my introduction to Steppenwolf.
Despite the evening’s experience, I went back often, even working in the box office for a stretch, including during the runs of two of the plays highlighted in this nostalgic look at the theatre’s history – The Road to Nirvana (an absolute disaster of a Mamet parody – I remember seeing it, but little about it aside from the f— filled first few minutes of the script) and The Song of Jacob Zulu featuring Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I was early for my first day of work and, as I waited, John Malkovich walked in, used the phone in the foyer and was buzzed into the building, a building (1650 N. Halsted) that plays more of a role in Steppenwolf’s history than I knew. That John Malkovich was there, though, is an integral part of the theatre’s credo. No matter how far their stars travel, they always want them to return – and they do. Laurie Metcalf, apparently, returned during every hiatus while she was filming Rosanne to prove to herself that she could still act. I saw her in My Thing of Love three times; she can still act.
The author, John Mayer, was a high school classmate of both Jeff Perry and Gary Sinise (2/3 of the company’s founders) and admits right off that his book will largely be a love letter to the company, and it is. Though there are allusions to difficult stretches – most directly in the end of Randall Arney’s reign as Artistic Director – most of the book is an account of a rags (church basement in Highland Park) to riches (new building on Halsted, shows in New York, London, etc.) story of the company (focusing on three of its landmark productions, Balm in Gilead, The Grapes of Wrath and August: Osage County) with a brief look ahead.
Still, if you are at all interested in the company, it’s an entertaining read, especially when Mayer (wisely) lets the ensemble members speak for themselves which he does often. John Mahoney’s description of Malkovich’s charisma made me laugh so hard that water came out of my nose. I tried to read it out loud to my wife, but eventually just had to hand her the book. Actually, she took it.
If you are not a huge theatre fan, there’s still something here for you – about collaboration, community, sticking to your principles and evolving, and doing the right thing for the right reasons.
Whenever I visit Chicago, I always look to see what’s going on at Steppenwolf. And, more often than not, I find a way to spend some time there. I’m no John Malkovich, but I, too, feel free to return.