William Petersen among friends at Geffen Playhouse’s ‘Slowgirl’
From David Mamet’s first expletive-laced success in the 1970s to the advent of Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County” as one of the most acclaimed 21st century American dramas to date, drawing blood — and not always just figuratively — has been the life’s blood of the Chicago school of live theater.
But on the evening of Independence Day, 1984, Randall Arney encountered a considerably more sanguineous sight than even the Windy City theater scene might have bargained for.
Making his entrance in the Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love,” he saw that William Petersen, playing a wild cowboy, had made what appeared to be an unexpected wardrobe switcheroo — dressed in a red top instead of the pale one the costume designer had decreed.
“Billy was sitting on the floor, and I thought, ‘What’s with the red shirt?,’ and I realized it was blood,” recalled Arney, who, 30 years on, is the artistic director of L.A.'s Geffen Playhouse.
Now his old Chicago buddy is making his Los Angeles stage debut at the Geffen under Arney’s direction in a new drama, “Slowgirl” — the latest chapter in Petersen’s resumption of a stage-centric career after nine seasons of TV stardom during the 2000s playing Gil Grissom, the bug scientist who was the original leader of the forensic team in the still-running CBS series, “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”
An interview with these cronies, who essentially grew up together as artists on the Chicago scene, is like accepting an invitation to someone else’s college class reunion but being regaled rather than bored out of one’s skull.
The script of Shepard’s play called for the cowboy to show off by whirling a lariat above his head, then lasso each post of a motel bed in succession. This being Steppenwolf in the 1980s, Petersen had perfected something a bit more extreme. He’d whirl his lariat several times over the heads of cringing ticket-holders in the front rows, drawing them into the action whether they liked it or not. Then he’d lasso a wooden chair, reel it in with a sharp flick of the rope, and break it over his head — a gesture expedited by the screws having been pre-loosened, not unlike the ones in the cowboy’s head.
Instead of falling harmlessly to the floor on that July 4 evening, one of the screws stabbed the right side of Petersen’s neck. “When it first happened, I thought, ‘it’s my jugular,’” he recalled.
“He was losing a lot of blood,” Arney chimed in, as these two tend to do in that way people have of turning the retelling of a shared youth into conversational volleyball, with the listener waiting to see who’ll make the setup pass and who’ll go for the spike. This time it was Arney: “There was no denying he was bleeding. We were in a small theater, and everyone could see he was bleeding. So he had to act like he knew he had a wound.”
Petersen made it through the rest of the show with Arney and the cowboy’s incestuous love interest, played by Rondi Reed, who won a 2008 Tony Award for her role in “August: Osage County” after Steppenwolf had premiered it and taken it to Broadway.
Petersen had his screen breakthrough in 1985, starring opposite Willem Dafoe in “To Live and Die in L.A.” He spent the next decade and a half continuing to perform regularly onstage, while choosing roles in films and TV movies calculated to earn him a nice living without putting him at risk of becoming an A-list star, which he wanted no part of.
He refused roles in TV series until CBS came calling with “CSI.” It eventually earned him a reported $500,000 or more per episode, and Petersen’s name still flashes in the credits as an executive producer, although he says he no longer has nor wants any input.
Having grown up in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Petersen predicted in a 1992 interview with the Chicago Tribune that he’d surely be miserable if ever forced to live in Los Angeles instead of just dropping in for a few months at a time to act in a movie.
But during “CSI” he found that he and his wife, Gina, a former Chicago teacher, had grown acclimated to life in Hancock Park, where they’re raising 2-year-old twins. Petersen, 61, has a grown daughter from his first marriage, and two grandchildren.
Arney lives in the area as well, and “Slowgirl” arose from the old friends running into each other a few years ago at a neighborhood grocery and promising they’d do a play together.
Arney became keen on the two-character drama by Greg Pierce (a nephew of David Hyde Pierce) when he saw its 2012 premiere in New York. Petersen had independently discovered and liked the script, but he didn’t see himself as the type who could play a man so whipped by life that he’s isolated himself in the Costa Rican jungle for nearly a decade. The play enacts the man’s discomfort, and his potential salvation, from a visit by his niece, a 17-year-old motormouth from Boston who’s in desperate trouble and needs any ally she can get.
Petersen said he’d recommended “Slowgirl” to Steppenwolf artistic director Martha Lavey as a play that would be good for other company members. She had succeeded Arney in the job in 1995. His eight-year stewardship had included hits such as Frank Galati’s stage adaptation of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” which transferred to Broadway and won the 1990 Tony Award for best play, and Arney’s own staging of Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” which toured widely after premiering at Steppenwolf in 1993.
Lavey and Arney, now in his 15th year as the Geffen’s artistic director, decided to repeat with “Slowgirl” what they’d done with Conor McPherson’s “The Seafarer” in 2008-09 — have Arney direct it at Steppenwolf, where he remains an ensemble member, then bring it to L.A. Rae Gray, who grew up doing shows on the Chicago stage, is playing the teenager while finishing her senior year at the University of Chicago by laptop. Petersen at first resisted the two artistic directors’ invitation to play her uncle.
“I usually do not play the reticent character, and ‘reticent’ is the light term for this guy,” Petersen said. “He can’t even complete a thought, he’s scared it’ll be taken badly. It’s a world that is not normally comfortable for me.”
Certainly not as comfortable as banging his head against a metal filing cabinet night after night, which Arney recalled had caused spots of blood to form in Petersen’s eyes during a 1980s Chicago run as convicted killer Jack Henry Abbott in “In the Belly of the Beast.”
But Petersen’s wife and a friend whose judgment he trusts pushed him, and here he is, having already won positive reviews in “Slowgirl” during its Steppenwolf run. Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones wrote that Petersen had proven he could transition from “perennially raging” stage roles to “thoughtfulness and apt reticence.”
“I’ve learned a great deal doing this, and I’m still learning,” Petersen said. “Which is why it’s nice to have this second chance to do it.”
Where: Geffen Playhouse, Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, 10866 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 27.
Contact: (310) 208-5454 or https://www.geffenplayhouse.com
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