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ACT II: A second look at area stages — Mariann Mayberry’s mastery

Mariann Mayberry hits career high playing an unemployed single mom 'Good People' Steppenwolf Theatre. | Michael Brosilow photo

Mariann Mayberry hits a career high playing an unemployed single mom in "Good People" at Steppenwolf Theatre. | Michael Brosilow photo

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Updated: December 19, 2012 10:47AM

With the Sunday afternoon performance of David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People” at Steppenwolf Theatre, actress Mariann Mayberry will be bidding farewell to what is unquestionably her most challenging and revealing role to date — that of Margaret, a tough, unapologetic, working-class woman in South Boston who has just been fired from her dollar-store job and who, as the single mother of a mentally disabled daughter, decides to confront a man from her high school days in an attempt to assure her future.

Gifted actresses can play many roles during the course of a long career. But to find one role that catapults you onto a different level — that in some uncanny way taps into all your life experience and all your stage experience at just the right moment — is a rare thing. Anyone who has been watching Mayberry over the years (she became a Steppenwolf ensemble member in 1993) knows that Margaret did that for Mayberry.

“When I was in ‘August: Osage County’ on Broadway [she played Karen, the youngest of the three Weston daughters], I became friends with Estelle Parsons, who took over for Deanna Dunagan,” Mayberry recalled. “She said I had to go see ‘Good People,’ which was on in New York at that time. But I was too exhausted to make it. And I thank God I never did, because I came to Margaret totally without the influence of seeing Frances McDormand playing the role.

“Later, when Martha [Lavey, Steppenwolf’s artistic director] sent me the script, I read it and was terrified. I loved it, but it had been a while since I’d done a leading role, and I wondered: Can I do it? Do I have it in me? And then I forced myself to get past the fear.”

Mayberry, who grew up in Branson, Mo., and moved to Illinois when her dad got a job at Great America, said she understood Margaret from the start.

“Growing up, my family was pretty poor, and my parents really struggled with feeling like outsiders. And of course as an actor you are pretty much always one paycheck away from being homeless — and without dental insurance, and sometimes without health insurance. So Margaret is very close to me, although she is much more of a warrior than I am. I’m more of an introvert. Margaret has to fight because she has a daughter to care for.”

Mayberry, who is married to actor Scott Jaeck, admits that her success in “Good People” has been a confidence boost. And, she notes: “I’ve always been a hard worker, but being a middle-aged woman now, and getting the chance to do this amazing part and be noticed, is a great gift, even if I am about to be jobless again.”

Not for long. In April, audiences will be able to catch Mayberry at the Lookingglass Theatre in “Still Alice,” a stage adaptation of Lisa Genova’s novel about a brilliant scholar diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s.

Asked if any showbiz power players saw her in “Good People,” Mayberry said: “I know the playwright was happy with the production, and I think some people who came to Chicago to see ‘Kinky Boots’ might also have made it to Steppenwolf.”

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