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Joan Allen — Steppenwolf’s prodigal daughter returns

Joan Allen September 9 2013. | JessicKoscielniak~Chicago Sun-Times

Joan Allen, September 9, 2013. | Jessica Koscielniak~Chicago Sun-Times

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“The Wheel”

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Updated: September 19, 2013 11:57AM

Longterm followers of Steppenwolf Theatre might still recall Joan Allen’s performance as a tough-as-nails, leather-clad lesbian in the company’s iconic 1980 production of Lanford Wilson’s “Balm in Gilead,” and how just a few seasons later she did a complete about-face playing Helen, the self-effacing English woman who unexpectedly finds wartime romance in C.P. Taylor’s “And a Nightingale Sang.” That show would quickly be remounted at New York’s Lincoln Center Theatre, earning Allen the first of many awards, and considerable attention.

The actress would go on to win a Tony Award for her performance in Wilson’s drama, “Burn This” (playing opposite John Malkovich) and then take on the grueling title role in the 1989 Broadway premiere of “The Heidi Chronicles,” Wendy Wasserstein’s meditation on feminism.

Allen returned to Chicago briefly in 1991 to make what would be her last appearance on a Steppenwolf stage for more than two decades — in Frank Galati’s stage adaptation of the Anne Tyler novel, “Earthly Possessions.” But by 1995 her career in movies had catapulted into high gear. Oliver Stone chose her to play the long-suffering First Lady, Pat Nixon, in his 1995 film, “Nixon,” and her vivid portrayal earned her an Academy Award for best supporting actress.

Meanwhile, “real life” was happening. Allen met actor Peter Friedman (they married in 1990 and divorced in 2002), and they had a daughter, Sadie, who is now 19 and taking “a gap year” between high school and college. And her movie career took off. She played Elizabeth Proctor, the woman accused of witchcraft, in the film version of “The Crucible” (1996). She played a politician compromised by a long-ago scandal in “The Contender” (2000). She starred as a discontented wife in Ang Lee’s “The Ice Storm.” And she played CIA Department Director Pamela Landy in “The Bourne Supremacy,” and its followups.

In 2009 Allen returned to the Broadway stage in a shortlived production of the play “Impressionism,” about the relationship between a New York gallery owner and a globe-trotting photojournalist played by Jeremy Irons. And then, two summers ago, dhe decided to take part in a series of play readings Steppenwolf does in New York, and she saw director Tina Landau at work for the first time.

“She was so ebullient, so funny, passionate and smart,” said Allen. “Sadly, there are so few female directors around, and I’ve only worked with a couple ­— Sally Potter and Martha Coolidge. And I thought: ‘This is someone I’d like as my boss in the theater.’ Then Martha Lavey [Steppenwolf’s artistic director] sent me Zinnie Harris’ ‘The Wheel,’ which has only been done once — at the National Theatre of Scotland. I read it, thought it was mysterious and could be an intellectually intriguing experience to watch. But before taking the leap I needed to know one thing from Tina, who was directing: ‘Would it have heart?’ She assured me it would.”

So Joan Allen, now 57, is back at Steppenwolf. She plays Beatriz, who she describes as “a tough, capable woman — a force to reckon with — who has managed to keep a poor family farm in the mountains of northeastern Spain going during a period of civil wars in the late 1800s.”

It is while Beatriz is making preparations for her sister’s wedding that soldiers arrive and seize a neighboring farmer, somehow leaving Beatriz as guardian of the man’s young daughter. Determined to reunite them, she embarks on a journey — one told in epic magical realism style, and with echoes of Brecht’s “Mother Courage” — that moves through a series of cataclysms, from World War I and World War II, to the wars in Vietnam and Iraq.

“This play is about a woman’s personal journey, and sadly it also is so relevant to our world today, and to the impact of war on children,” said Allen. “It has a huge cast — 17 actors. And it’s a very elaborate production, with live music and projections and things moving in a rather abstract way.”

“I love the intimacy of Steppenwolf’s theater,” said Allen. “I also know that while this play will take over my life, and all my stamina, it will only be for a limited time, rather than the year-long contract you have to sign on Broadway. After doing ‘Burn This” and “The Heidi Chronicles” almost back-to-back I realized I was inhabiting distraught characters for far too long, and I didn’t do theater for quite a while. If you live in that head space it has a way of infiltrating real life no matter how well you separate things.”

Allen smiled knowingly when talking about her many leading men — from Anthony Hopkins, Jeff Bridges, Dustin Hoffman (“who is always asking questions, and who I love”), and Irons, to Matt Damon (“my kind of guy — humble — and a fantastic, down-to-earth person.”)

Allen, too, is down-to-earth.

“I’m not an extravagant person,” she said. “It doesn’t take a lot to make me happy. I don’t need huge homes and fancy cars that are a lot of work and worry. I live in the same one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan that I’ve lived in for years, although it does have one great luxury — a beautiful wrap-around terrace big enough for a dinner party, and for a garden of roses and hydrangeas and weeping trees.”

The acting bug bit Allen when she was seven or eight, growing up in the small town of Rochelle, Il. about 75 miles west of Chicago.

“I didn’t really know what it was, of course, but I liked talking into the little tape recorder I got as a Christmas present. In middle school I was a cheerleader, which is a form of performing. And then when I didn’t make the high school squad I saw a sign for an audition and was cast in a one-act play. We had statewide school competitions where we’d go out on a bus and perform plays and participate in speech contests, and I realized that was what I wanted to do.”

A theater major at Eastern Illinois University for two years (where she met John Malkovich, who was a couple of years ahead of her), Allen transferred to Northern Illinois. The summer before she graduated, Malkovich asked her to be in a show Steppenwolf was doing at Hull House on Broadway and Belmont. Once she completed school he invited her to join the company.

Allen has “come home” often in recent years to visit her mother, now 96 and living in Rochelle. And she has caught a number of shows at Steppenwolf along the way. But this time around she asked her assistant to drive her around to all her old Chicago haunts.

“We went by my old apartments, and Hull House, and Ann Sather’s and even the Catholic grade school in Highland Park where Steppenwolf began. Of course everything has changed. But I still carry so much of Steppenwolf with me. I wouldn’t be where I am without that work ethic, and the idea that you just do plays, and some are good, some are not, but you carry on. You tell the story the best way possible, and the better the actors around you, the better it will all be.”

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