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Laugh Now, Pay Later

Date: May 19, 2008


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From True West to The Grapes of Wrath, from Buried Child to The Pain and the Itch, Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre has made Middle American family dysfunction a signature preoccupation, even as the nearly 35-year-old company has developed one of the nation's most durable and versatile acting ensembles--a kind of extended family in itself.

Both Steppenwolf's thematic specialty and its ensemble prowess are on brilliant display in Tracy Letts' sprawling, disturbing, hilarious epic of family collapse, August: Osage County, which has already nabbed the Pulitzer Prize and a best play award from the New York Drama Critics Circle, as well as a raft of Tony nominations.

Among those nominated is Rondi Reed, a Steppenwolf member who joined up in 1979 as the troupe's "resident character woman," as she puts it, and who quickly made a particular specialty of taking on not only roles much older than herself but especially unsavory and unsympathetic characters.

"I always end up playing those characters who get a comeuppance," Reed says during a dinner break between the Wednesday matinee and evening performances of August at the Music Box, the more intimate theatre to which the hit show recently moved after opening last winter at the cavernous Imperial. "When I played Sister Woman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, I got booed during curtain call. I have a very tough skin about that."

Tough indeed: "When I did Retreat From Moscow in Chicago a few years ago, I was going on with a big speech to my husband, saying, 'If you hate me, say you hate me, if you want to leave me, just tell me something!' And from the back row, I hear, 'You can tell her to shut up!' "

In August: Osage County, Reed plays Mattie Fae, the brassy, larger-than-life aunt to the play's central Weston sisters. The verbally abusive, seemingly congenitally insensitive Mattie Fae does indeed get put in her place in one memorable, applause-garnering moment late in the show--and then goes on to reveal the show's biggest secret, along with unforeseen layers of complexity.

"I jokingly say to people: If you laugh at Mattie Fae, then you pay later," says Reed.

Though Tracy Letts, a fellow Steppenwolf member, wrote the role with Reed in mind, she almost didn't do it.

"I'd been doing Wicked in Chicago for, like, two years, and Steppenwolf says, 'Tracy's written a new play,' " says Reed, who had a cushy regular gig as Madame Morrible in the show's local sit-down production. "I kept saying, 'I can't do it!' Every time Tracy would see me, he'd be like, 'When are you getting out of Wicked?' And I'd go, 'I'm not!' "

In the end, it wasn't the pressure that won her over.

"Out of the blue, Wicked said, 'We're going to put you on creative hiatus,' " Reed recalls. "This is what they do to shake it up artistically, because they have so many people and so many companies. So I called Steppenwolf and I said, 'Remember that play?' "

That's just one of many felicitous serendipities around the August Cinderella story, Reed says.

"There are so many things about this play that, to my mind, have been divinely guided from the get-go," Reed says. For one, though Letts wrote it for Steppenwolf's acting ensemble, there was no guarantee which actors he'd actually get, since company members work regularly in films, television and theatre elsewhere.

Another nice coincidence, Reed mentions, is that the playwright's father, Dennis Letts, stepped into the brief but pivotal role of Beverly Weston on Broadway before his death in February. (He's since been replaced by Michael McGuire.)

"His being from Oklahoma, and the story being part of his own life--it was one of those things," Reed says. "He would talk to me about the real Mattie Fae, he'd say, 'Oh, Rondi--she was not as happy as you are. She was much more tragic.' "

Wait--the "real" Mattie Fae?

"The play is based on a lot of real people who went in and out of Tracy's life," Reed says, though she's quick to add that "it's not strictly autobiographical."

Tragic or not, Mattie Fae stands out as particularly unlovable character, amid a catty, craven clan that gives her plenty of competition in the unlikeability department. What's up with Reed and these unsympathetic characters?

"I have an affinity for playing these people--I'm not embarrassed about how ugly they are, and I'm not afraid of what they show," says Reed, who also guesses that losing her own mother at age 12 makes her more fearless in depicting a monster-matriarch. "Those are the kind of things I'm attracted to because they're sort of naked, in a way that I think is really interesting onstage. You don't always get to play people like that."

While she and the play's director, Anna Shapiro, have talked about Mattie Fae's psychological background, Reed thinks that the play's refusal to explain every detail may be why it resonates so strongly with audiences.

"When Mattie Fae turns to Barbara and says, 'I don't know why Little Charles is such a disappointment to me--maybe he…' And then she just turns and says, 'I don't know why.' I mean, she clearly has not been on an analyst's couch about this; she's just gone on with her life.

"I like that, because I think real life is messy; real life doesn't always get tied up. You say, 'Why would they do that?' Well, they just did. If you want to clinically analyze the show, you absolutely can, but I think what makes it resonate with people is that we all carry around unspoken, unacknowledged human things. Maybe as a child or a spouse you get the other end of it, and you don't know why: You may never know why your father could never come to grips with something, or why nobody has said they love you."

As one patron was overheard saying in the lobby after the matinee: "I can't wait to get home my functional family!"

Reed laughs in agreement.

"During the holidays, it was almost palpable," she recalls. "You could just feel it in the audience, because people were in the middle of it with their families. You'd go out afterwards and somebody would say, 'Thank God my family's not that bad,' or 'I don't feel as bad about my family now.' "

For better or worse, such sentiments spring eternal, making August: Osage County a good bet to be a timeless American classic.

Click here for more information about August: Osage County.

Click here to read the entire interview with Rondi Reed.