STEPPENWOLF STEPPIN' OUT

Deanna Dunagan was Broadway-bound and she was not happy.

It was mid-October and she was due to leave in a week for New York, where she would reprise her acclaimed performance as Violet Weston, the pill-addicted, cancer-stricken monster of a mother at the heart of "August: Osage County." The play, by actor-playwright Tracy Letts, had been the hottest ticket of the summer at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, and now Dunagan and most of the large cast were getting ready to take the play to the Big Apple.

But Dunagan, who has lived in Chicago since coming to town in 1981 with a touring production of "Children of a Lesser God," lives in a roomy condominium steps from Marine Drive. In New York, she would be occupying a furnished corporate apartment she calls "sterile" and "very masculine." As an established actress with a long list of credits to her name, she was under no illusions about the bright lights and supposedly career-changing potential of Broadway, that holiest of American theatrical holies. Most of all, her voice and back and knees had just recovered from the beating they took during the two-month run of "August," which lasts nearly 3 1/2 grueling hours. Now she would have to face those physical challenges all over again.

"I don't have anything positive to say about this," said a somber Dunagan, taking a break from sorting through clothes and cleaning out desk drawers. "It's a duty. We need to get this play seen. And we need to get this play seen so the word gets out about Chicago theater."

She was hardly alone in her views. Taken as a whole, the cast's response to the Broadway offer could be summed up as, "Do we have to?"

"The bulk of the cast is over 40, so picking up and moving isn't what it was in our 20s," said Amy Morton, who plays Barbara, Violet's oldest daughter and chief antagonist. "It's a much more complicated affair."

Beyond the disruptions and the time spent away from spouses, children and familiar surroundings, the actors were reflecting a common attitude among members of Chicago's diverse, innovative and hometown-proud theater community. Sure, this thinking goes, Broadway was once the summit of American theater, but these days, it's just another Times Square tourist trap, the domain of overblown musicals and vanity projects for Hollywood stars who want to show that they can memorize more than one line at a time.

You want real theater? You want exciting productions of new works, like "August," and bold reimaginings of classics? You want plays in every variety of setting, from gilded palaces to grungy storefronts? You want acting that comes from the heart and the gut as well as from the brain? Come to Chicago.

For that matter, what would make a group of hard-headed producers with a proven Broadway track record think they could turn a profit by transporting some 13 actors-none of them bankable, bold-faced names-to New York to present a dark play about a family with almost every known dysfunction? A play so long it has two intermissions?

"It's not a rational project," David Hawkanson, the executive director of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, says dryly.

And yet, despite all the travails of putting on a Broadway show, including a curveball stagehands strike that shut down the play for 19 days while it was in previews, "August: Osage County" has scored a triumphant bull's-eye on Broadway. It is a critical hit, with all the attendant predictions of Tony awards for the cast and a Pulitzer Prize for Letts. It is a financial success, standing up to competition from new plays by such brand-name playwrights as David Mamet, Tom Stoppard, Conor McPherson and Aaron Sorkin. And it is serving as a calling card to reintroduce American theater-goers to the 33-year-old Steppenwolf company, by now a venerable institution that, of all things, does not want to be thought of as a venerable institution.

"As lucky as we've been at Steppenwolf over the years, there's never been such a genuine expression of what Steppenwolf Theatre is in an original work by one of our company members," says cast member Jeff Perry, who founded the company with Gary Sinise and Terry Kinney in 1975, when they were barely out of college.

From its first productions at a Catholic school in Highland Park, Steppenwolf has been dedicated to the idea of ensemble acting, giving both big and small roles the same care and attention that other companies focus on one or two star characters. Over the years, the company has produced stars who have gone on to movie and TV careers, including Sinise, John Malkovich and Joan Allen, but that was a byproduct of the group's choice of gritty material, which showed off the young performers' emotionally charged acting.

"August: Osage County," set in Pawhuska, the county seat of Osage County, Okla., revolves around the mother-daughter battle between Violet and Barbara, but it fits comfortably into the Steppenwolf's ensemble tradition. Letts, who grew up in Oklahoma and has been an ensemble member since 2002, provides every character with at least one moment to shine, and there are many points when the seamless interplay between the actors, many of whom have worked together for decades, is crucial to achieving the simultaneous feats of making the audience laugh out loud and squirm in their seats.

And that's one of the most surprising aspects of this dark play: its humor. Besides tearing each other apart, Letts' characters get off plenty of sharp observations. Early on, Barbara corrects her husband, Bill, who has referred to Oklahoma as part of the Midwest. " Michigan is the Midwest, God knows why," she says. "This is the Plains: a state of mind, right, some spiritual affliction, like the Blues."

The play opened in July to rave reviews from the Tribune's Chris Jones and other Chicago critics. "Letts has penned a major, not-to-be-missed new American work that eulogizes the perversely nurturing dysfunction of family life on the Plains," Jones wrote. "This remarkable show . . . powerfully energizes and centers the acting ensemble."

New York's theater world was soon buzzing about the play, thanks to Letts' New York agent, Ron Gwiazda, who sent copies of the script to several producers. By the end of the play's run in August, the company had multiple offers to take "August" east.

Although watching a family claw itself to pieces for three hours is not normal Broadway fare, "August" had a couple of factors in its favor. Two of Letts' earlier plays, "Killer Joe" and "Bug," had been off-Broadway hits, and another, "The Man from Nebraska," had been a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Maybe he wasn't famous, but he was hardly an unknown quantity in the theater world.

Also, the 2007-2008 Broadway lineup was shaping up as an unusual season, not of endless musicals but of serious straight plays. New works were scheduled by Mamet, Stoppard and Irish playwright McPherson, and one of Harold Pinter's best-known plays, "The Homecoming," was being revived.

The lead producer of two of these plays-the Pinter drama and Mamet's political comedy, "November"-is Jeffrey Richards, and he also ended up leading the producing partnership that won the bidding war for "August." Richards, a longtime press agent-turned-producer, has done musicals, such as "Spring Awakening," but his credits are heavy with serious works, from Gore Vidal's "The Best Man" to the 2004 revival of Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross."

He flew to Chicago three times to see "August" and to meet with Letts and the Steppenwolf production team to persuade them to sign with him and his fellow producers, who include Jean Doumanian, Woody Allen's former producer, and Steve Traxler, president of Chicago-based Jam Theatricals.

"It was a very powerful drama about a dysfunctional family that had enormous humor," says Richards. "It was a kind of play that one rarely sees written these days. It has an epic feel to it. I was just swept up by the storytelling."

To transplant the Steppenwolf production to Broadway for the 16-week run envisioned by the producers, they had to raise $2.6 million. Working in their favor, as they saw it, was the company's previous track record on Broadway, including adaptations of "The Grapes of Wrath" in 1990 and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" in 2001.

"The Steppenwolf name means something to New Yorkers," says Traxler, whose recent Broadway credits range from "Monty Python's Spamalot" to the far more serious "The History Boys." But, he admits, "It certainly started out as a huge gamble."

One of the keys to their winning bid was guaranteeing that Steppenwolf would retain artistic control over the Broadway production, according to Steppenwolf executive director Hawkanson. And the producers were not interested in taking the play but leaving the actors behind. They wanted to bring the whole cast to New York.

"In the minds of the partners producing the show, there was never any doubt that we wanted to present this on Broadway the way it was presented at the Steppenwolf," said Traxler during a fall visit to New York when "August" was still in previews. "In a sense, the heart of the play is very much the Steppenwolf ensemble."

It was hardly a foregone conclusion that the cast would vote to go. Many of them had appeared on Broadway before. Jeff Perry and two other cast members had children still living at home. What would it mean to be away for several months?

"The idea, the fantasy, is that 'My life is going to change [by going to Broadway], that everything is going to be different,' " says Steppenwolf artistic director Martha Lavey, who had to find replacements for several "August" cast members that had been slated to appear in, or like Morton, direct other Steppenwolf productions this season. "Not only have many of us realized that is not true, a lot of them would say, 'I don't want my life to be different. I like my life here.' "

But despite its glitz and commercialism, Broadway remains Broadway. Rondi Reed, a company member since 1979 who had already been to Broadway, worried about what she would do with her dog if she went to New York, but her agent told her, "You have to do it."

It was, after all, a chance to take a serious new play to Broadway.

"In my belief system, the big picture, it's not really that important," says director Anna D. Shapiro. "But then there are times when your feelings don't correspond to your beliefs."

In the end, only two of the 13 cast members did not make the trip -Fawn Johnstin, who played Violet's teenage granddaughter and had to go back to school, and Rick Snyder, a veteran ensemble member who had been to Broadway twice in Steppenwolf productions. The younger of Snyder's two sons recently moved out of the family's Wheaton house, which would have left his wife alone at home while he trod the boards on Broadway.

"I didn't want to be away from home," says Snyder, who also had two directing jobs lined up in Chicago. "I've done that a lot in our marriage, and I just decided this time I shouldn't do that."

At first, the timing of the move to Broadway was uncertain-it could be as much as a year away-but suddenly, the Shubert Organization told the producers one of its venues, the Imperial Theatre, would be available in the fall. They had 48 hours to think it over. They said yes.

The scramble to find places to live in New York was on-except for ensemble member Sally Murphy, who plays Ivy, Violet's beaten-down middle daughter. Murphy, who lives in New York, had spent the summer in one of the apartments that Steppenwolf rents near the theater for visiting performers. Now, she could live at home.

Everyone else scoured Craigslist, the online listing service, for apartments and called on New York friends to check out leads. Dunagan thought a furnished apartment on the Upper West Side looked promising until a friend saw it and gave it a thumbs down. By contrast, Morton asked a friend of hers who visited a one-bedroom apartment she was interested in subletting whether he would feel comfortable there. He answered, "Oh, yeah."

Morton, a tall, no-nonsense woman who grew up in Oak Park, took the apartment, which is near 90th Street and Broadway. It is in a residential part of the Upper West Side that reminded her of Chicago's Lincoln Square neighborhood. Lincoln Square is where she and husband live, in a three-bedroom condo with a hallway so long "you could bowl in it," she says.

As the move approached in the fall, Morton found herself obsessed with the minutiae of moving. Figuring out what to pack for an open-ended run is more art than science.

"I don't want to take too many pairs of pants," said Morton, who started acting in Chicago in 1980, first as a member of the now-defunct Remains Theatre and, since 1997, as a Steppenwolf member. "I can't take all my shoes. It's things like that, and it's driving me crazy. I'm such a homebody."

And she was dreading the coming adjustment to tighter quarters-in her temporary home, and everywhere else in New York.

"I always feel like a bull in a china shop in New York," she said. "I feel like I'm three times the size I am. The apartments are smaller, the restaurants are smaller."

For Perry, the New York run would be his second stint away from home in only a few months. He lives in Los Angeles, where he's pursued a TV career, appearing in such programs as "Lost," "Grey's Anatomy" and "Nash Bridges." For the Chicago run of "August," he, like Murphy, lived in one of Steppenwolf's leased flats.

"It's part of an actor's territory, where you know that a certain part of the work is going to be with suitcase in hand," says Perry, who is married to casting director Linda Lowy and has two daughters living at home. "It was never really a consideration of not doing this."

In New York, he found a corporate apartment at first, although he later took a cheaper sublet to save money. In addition to their salaries, the actors receive a housing allowance, but it only goes so far given New York's cost of living.

Dunagan, who is single, also found a corporate flat. She says the furniture was designed for 250-pound men and she hears fire sirens from the nearby firehouse. The big selling point for her was its location, just five blocks from the Imperial Theatre. With eight shows a week, she did not want to waste time traveling back and forth to an apartment.

A petite woman who has often been cast as the proper lady, Dunagan figures that over the course of her career, she has lived about four years in New York. She tells a story about her moment of fame on the New York stage in 1979 as an understudy in "Man and Superman" at the Circle in the Square Theatre. Showing up at the theater less than a half-hour before curtain time one night, she learned that the actress she was understudying was ill. She went on opposite two pros, Philip Bosco and George Grizzard, and made such a splash that an agent at ICM, the powerhouse talent agency, signed her the next day.

What happened next?

"Well, nothing happened," says Dunagan, who retains more than a trace of her native Texas in her speech. "I was a little fish in a big old pond. They didn't have time for me."

By contrast, since moving to Chicago, she's appeared in productions at more than 30 theaters, felt that she was part of a thriving theater community and built a comfortable life.

"It's interesting how differently people treat you," Dunagan says, musing on the reactions of her friends when they found out she was Broadway-bound. "They're all so excited and thrilled, and I'm filled with trepidation. It's not a question of, 'Can I do this dramatically?' I have no doubt about that. It's, 'Can I do it physically?' "

Playing a hateful Gorgon of a mother is hard work. The character of Violet Weston is on stage for most of the play's nearly 3 1/2 hours, much of it spent yelling at her family. Dunagan's knees give her trouble, so Violet's frequent trips up and down the set's stairs between the ground floor and her bedroom are a challenge. And at one point, during a family dinner that goes horribly wrong-a set piece that shows off the cast's ensemble acting at its best-she and Morton's character struggle violently over a bottle of pills.

Violet Weston has been compared to Mary Tyrone, the morphine-addict mother in Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night."

"I've done Mary Tyrone, and this is harder," Dunagan says emphatically. "Mary is not on stage as much as Violet, and she doesn't scream."

By the end of the Chicago run of "August: Osage County," Dunagan's voice was ragged, and her back and knees ached. So, to prepare for the Broadway run, Dunagan's pre-move checklist included visits to various physical therapists to improve her odds of keeping fit, including acupuncture and a spinal injection to help her back.

Morton also visited a physical therapist before leaving Chicago.

"Your body doesn't know you're lying," says Morton, talking about the physical demands of acting. "Your body thinks you're in trauma all the time. People think actors are hypochondriacal, but what we traffic in, human emotion and psychology-your body doesn't know you haven't lost your love."

The Steppenwolf management was sympathetic to the actors' worries, but the talk around the company's offices on North Avenue focused mainly on the opportunity for Steppenwolf to reintroduce itself to the American theater-going public with the Broadway run of "August."

In 1982, John Malkovich and Gary Sinise put Steppenwolf on the national theatrical map with the company's first New York show, an off-Broadway production of Sam Shepard's "True West." Steppenwolf-and, by association, all of Chicago theater-became synonymous with raw, explosive acting.

Steppenwolf has scored further successes in New York and London since then, but this time would be different. This was the first time the ensemble was taking a new work-by one of their own members, no less-to legendary Broadway. Nurturing young playwrights and presenting new plays has become the focus of Steppenwolf's second generation. The fact that a company known for its high-testosterone productions was showing off a work in which women have the juiciest roles was an added bonus.

"This feels like the beautiful fruit of that effort," says artistic director Lavey, referring to the company's commitment to producing new material. "It feels like a real validation of what we've been doing. The company has a tremendous life now that is not necessarily part of those early plays."

The actors gathered in New York for the first time on Oct. 23, four weeks before the planned Nov. 20 opening. The first day of rehearsals was held in a stark, white-walled studio in the Chelsea neighborhood, in a building filled with similar studios. The facilities are used by Broadway productions such as "Chicago" and "Jersey Boys" for tuning up away from the glare of the Great White Way.

The "August" cast sat at folding tables, amid coffee cups, bags of snack food and assorted papers. Before moving into the theater, the first two 12-hour-plus days would be spent in this space, reading through the play with the two new cast members-Brian Kerwin in the role of Steve Heidebrecht, the oily fiance of Violet's youngest daughter, and Madeleine Martin as Jean, Violet's teen granddaughter.

Despite the unassuming surroundings, publicist Irene Gandy rebuked a reporter who had the temerity to bring up Chicago. To her, "August" had hit the big time.

"This is Broadway," said Gandy, who favors big hats and wears glasses with dots in the rims to simulate marquee lights. "You're not in 312 anymore."

How true. Just as the actors had to make adjustments to new living quarters in New York, "August" would have to make adjustments. Part of the Steppenwolf philosophy is to present theater in an intimate space to involve the audience in the work. "August" had played in the company's largest theater, which seats 515.

The Imperial Theatre, formerly the home of that Broadway war horse "Les Miserables," seats 1,439.

Shapiro, the director, found the prospect of the larger theater "incredibly nerve-wracking." The Imperial, she says, "feels like a concert venue, not a playhouse."

Todd Rosenthal's ingenious three-story set had to be adjusted to fit the Imperial's stage and to alter parts that were obstructing views from some seats. But the biggest change was using microphones to make sure the actors could be heard in the Imperial's upper reaches.

To theater purists, microphones are a travesty. But at least the actors would not be wearing the mikes. They would be placed discreetly around the stage to fill in dead spots.

"Twenty years ago, I would have felt ashamed of that," says a resigned Perry. "But amplified sound is all around us now more than ever, from big-screen TVs and home theaters to iPods."

For the actors, one other difference between the Steppenwolf and the Imperial quickly became apparent. The Steppenwolf may be smaller, but its dressing rooms are palatial compared to the cramped, creaking quarters at the Imperial, which opened in 1923.

"There's a charm to the Imperial, but there's also a draft," says Morton, who shares a dressing room with Mariann Mayberry, who plays another Weston daughter, Karen. "It's got heating issues. It's like the difference between an old house and a new house."

Despite the discomforts, long rehearsals followed by preview performances at night meant that the dressing rooms became the actors' homes away from their temporary homes. But, ominously, the stage manager would remind the cast every night to take all of their belongings with them. Broadway's stagehands were threatening a strike, and if it came off, the actors would not be able to get back inside the theater to collect their belongings without crossing a picket line.

After 12 preview performances that had begun to build momentum for the show, the stagehands walked off their jobs in early November. From having practically no free time, the actors went to having almost total free time. An off-Broadway theater gave them tickets to Edward Albee's new play "Peter and Jerry." And one of Letts' kin invited the cast to suburban Westchester County for Thanksgiving.

"It's just a matter of filling the days and trying not to spend money," Morton said over lunch at a noisy Upper West Side diner during the strike. "In New York, that's not easy to do."

The actors' only appointment was a nightly trip to the Imperial's stage door, where they checked in with an Actors Equity union representative so they would qualify for a $405-a-week strike benefit from the union.

On an unusually cold Friday night in November, Dunagan, Morton and the rest of the cast gathered by the stage door on 46th Street as picketers paced up and down the sidewalk. Bundled up in heavy coats and caps, they talked about their day and what they had planned for the evening. After a month in New York, they had settled into new, if temporary, routines. Rondi Reed was happy that her dog, a mixed-breed named Boo Radley, had made a smooth adjustment.

"My dog loves New York," said Reed, whose pet is named for a character in "To Kill a Mockingbird." "He just walks down the street like he's got music under his feet."

As the strike wore on, the producers faced a double squeeze. Not only did they have to refund tickets to canceled performances, but with no end of the strike in sight, advance ticket sales were also drying up.

Some two weeks into the strike, the producers invited the cast to Joe Allen's, a popular theater district restaurant, for what producer Richards called a "solidarity dinner."

"There was never a question that we weren't going to open the play in New York," Richards said. "I told the cast we were dedicated to opening the play on Broadway, no matter how long the strike lasted."

Two days later, the stagehands reached agreement with the producers league, and the race was on to open "August" in time to take advantage of the holidays, traditionally one of the busiest seasons on Broadway.

Opening night was set for Tuesday, Dec. 4. As luck would have it, Dunagan had a sore throat. She spent much of the day with her head over a pot of boiling water, inhaling steam. Before leaving for the theater, she wrote notes to each cast member, a bow to the theatrical tradition of exchanging gifts or mementos on opening night.

"I'm sure I'll get through," she said with a rasp in her voice. "I try to take it one scene at a time and not look ahead. If you look ahead to where you're going to be at the end of 3 1/2 hours, I don't think you'd walk on stage."

From Violet's entrance, when she shakily clip-clops down a flight of stairs to hurl a bit of abuse at her husband, until the play's end, when Violet is the only family member left in the house, Dunagan betrayed no vocal strain. And Morton gave as good as she got, thundering, "I'm in charge now," after wrestling Violet's pills away from her.

The audience of first-nighters rewarded the performance with a standing ovation. After taking their bows, the actors changed quickly and walked across the theater district to Virgil's, a faux-Southern barbecue joint, for the opening-night party. Jammed into the restaurant's second-floor balcony, the cast and a crowd of about 200 friends and supporters jostled for barbecued beef and chicken, French fries, and beer.

The setting may not have matched the popular image of a sophisticated after-theater soiree in Gotham, but at least one old theater tradition played itself out: waiting for the reviews.

Once upon a time, actors and producers awaited the early edition of the next day's paper to find out whether they were a hit or a flop. Today, critics see shows in advance, and reviews are posted on a newspaper's Web site as the final curtain falls.

At Virgil's, producer Steve Traxler pulled a folded piece of paper from the breast pocket of his coat and handed it to a man sitting at a table of people who looked as though they were holding their breaths. It was the New York Times review.

Sighs of relief turned to whoops of joy, punctuated with high-fives.

"It is, flat out, no asterisks and without qualifications, the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years," wrote critic Charles Isherwood. "Fiercely funny and bitingly sad, this turbocharged tragicomedy . . . doesn't just jump-start the fall theater season, recently stalled when the stagehands went on strike. 'August' throws it instantaneously into high gear."

The Times was hardly alone. The Tribune's Chris Jones, the Chicago Sun-Times' Hedy Weiss and critics from across the country hailed the Broadway production. In the 48 hours following the opening, "August" raked in more than $1 million in ticket sales, the kind of business a producer would expect from a big musical.

By the beginning of the year, the theater world was still buzzing with speculation that Dunagan and Morton, and maybe others, would be favorites to win Tony Awards later this year, and Letts was seen as a top contender for a Pulitzer Prize.

That kind of talk helped to keep ticket sales up during the January doldrums. By late-January, "August" had already grossed $4 million, and the producers were starting to distribute profits to their investors. The play, originally set to close in March, was extended into April, with the possibility of further extensions. And Richards said there were plans for a national tour and a London production.

Unlike the sighs and long faces that greeted the news of a Broadway run, the "August" cast was thrilled at the thought of going to London-"because that's a fun city," as Morton put it.

Since the opening, a parade of celebs has trooped backstage after the show: Warren Beatty and Annette Bening; Mike Nichols; Bernadette Peters; Kevin Spacey; and Meryl Streep. And Julia Roberts sent the cast a case of Perrier Jouet champagne.

"It's just something you don't get in Chicago," says Morton, explaining why someone who's been acting all her adult life would be excited by the celebrity drop-bys. But there's a professional explanation too. "They won't come backstage if they don't like the show."

But for the most part, the actors claim they have not been affected by the success of "August." Some of the cast have auditioned for other plays, but Dunagan and Morton say the show is so exhausting that they are using their off-hours to rest for the next performance.

"I'm living like a nun," Dunagan says. "All I do is the show."

Apart from fatigue and a virus that caused her to miss some performances, Dunagan is withstanding the rigors of the schedule. She attributed that to the acupuncture treatments she receives weekly. Also, to keep her voice limber, she dashes up to her third-floor dressing room during the third act when she's not on stage, inhales steam and does vocal exercises.

"I'm just very fortunate to have had the chance of creating this role," Dunagan says, in marked contrast to her sentiments in October. "It's the hardest job, I hope, that I will ever have."

Morton views the success of "August: Osage County" as a watershed, both for her and perhaps the wider theater world.

"I think I can safely say that this is going to be my high point," she reflects. "And the fact that this kind of phenomenon has occurred in this star-driven, celebrity-crazed era is really important. If you write it well and you cast it right, you don't necessarily need stars."

And what about those career-changing offers? "My phone isn't ringing off the hook," Morton says. "I still have to take the bus. People aren't picking me up after the show and taking me to Le Cirque. Huh! Imagine that."

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soswanson@tribune.com.

IN THE WEB EDITION:

Steppenwolf's Martha Lavey talks about the Chicago and New York productions of "August: Osage County" at chicagotribune.com/august

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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