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Caroline Neff, Dan Waller cross Steppenwolf’s threshhold for ‘Three Sisters’

Caroline Neff  stars 'Three Sisters' Steppenwolf Theatre Chicago. | Al Podgorski~Sun-Times Media

Caroline Neff stars in "Three Sisters" at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. | Al Podgorski~Sun-Times Media

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‘THREE
SISTERS’

◆ Through Aug. 26

◆ Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted

◆ Tickets, $20-$75

◆ (312) 335-1650;
www.steppenwolf.org

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Updated: July 5, 2012 10:40AM



Actors Caroline Neff and Dan Waller have made distinctive marks playing major roles with many formidable Chicago theaters — companies that more often than not come under the generic heading of “storefront.” Now they are about to do what many actors only dream about as they make their debuts in principal roles on the Steppenwolf Theatre mainstage.

Both actors are part of the cast for the production of Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters” being directed by Tony Award-winner Anna D. Shapiro and featuring a fresh adaptation of the Russian classic devised by Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts of “August: Osage County” fame.

I have been watching Neff and Waller for years and have been consistently dazzled by their talent, their vulnerability and their ability to work in spaces where they can feel the breath of the audience on their faces. They are more than ready for the big time.

“The Three Sisters” is about the broken dreams and upheaval in the lives of the Prozorovs, a cash-strapped but highly educated bourgeois family stuck in a town once abuzz as an army garrison but now a provincial backwater. Neff plays Irina, the youngest and most dream-filled of the play’s trio of sisters, and the one who most yearns to go to Moscow, the great cosmopolitan center. Waller plays Irina’s older brother, a man who might have been a professor in Moscow but has somehow settled into failure, marrying a local woman, Natasha, whom his sisters believe is beneath his status, and amassing a ruinous level of debt.

With porcelain skin and a mane of thick, curly blonde hair that gives her the aura of a sexy pre-Raphaelite beauty, Neff, 26, has dominated the stages of Steep Theatre and Griffin Theatre for several years. She attracted great attention for her work in Mark Schultz’s “A Brief History of Helen of Troy,” in which she played a self-doubting teenager whose recently widowed dad is deeply troubled. And she has played major roles in several plays by the prolific English writer Simon Stephens, including “Port,” “Harper Regan” and “Pornography.”

More recently, Neff (who appeared in a Steppenwolf Garage production of Lucy Thurber’s “Where We’re Born” a couple of seasons back, playing a college freshman from a working-class family) exposed every painfully raw nerve as a woman faced with unrequited love in David Eldridge’s “Under the Blue Sky” (also at Steep), and played a vampy office worker in Adam Bock’s disturbing play, “The Receptionist.” And at a reading of a new Simon Stephens play a few months ago (with the playwright in the audience), she instantly brought to life an impulsive young woman with a pitch-perfect English accent that clearly wowed the writer.

All along the way Neff had a day job, waiting tables at the Park Grill Restaurant in Millennium Park.

Along the way she was being watched, too — by Erica Daniels, Steppenwolf’s powerful casting director, who eventually made sure artistic director Martha Lavey also saw her in action.

Getting cast for “The Three Sisters” involved a long process that lasted from last Thanksgiving through early January.

“I was sent in to audition by my agent at the Stewart Talent Agency,” Neff recalled. “And my callback was on the same day I was flying to Florida to go to Disney World with my sister and her kids. So my brain was in Chicago, Florida and Moscow all at once. At the callback I read with [Steppenwolf actor] Ian Barford, which was pretty incredible, and Anna [Shapiro] and Tracy [Letts] were both in the room.

“And yes, the first day of rehearsal was incredibly intimidating. But once we started working it was just a bunch of actors in a room asking questions, like everywhere else, though the amount of support you get at Steppenwolf is unbelievable.

“What is really fascinating is that I’ve worked with Jonathan Berry, Joanie Schultz, Shade Murray, Robin Witt — most of whom were part of Anna Shapiro’s first crop of MFA directing students at Northwestern University. So now it’s as if I’m working with the mom of all my favorite directors.”

About her character in “The Three Sisters” Neff said: “Irina is great — an eternal optimist in the face of all the odds against her. It is devastating when she resigns herself to marrying a man she doesn’t love. But even when she knows every dream of hers is unreachable she never lets go of hope.”

Like Neff, Waller, a very boyish 40 (lean as a whippet, with pale freckles and a neat, ginger-colored beard and hair, and a splint on a finger broken in a softball game), has worked with gifted directors, including David Cromer (in such memorable productions as “The Cider House Rules” and “Journey’s End”), and at many small theaters (Seanachai, Lifeline, Famous Door), but also at the Goodman. He also has amassed a list of television and film credits over the years.

But it was last season, in his triumphant portrayal of Oliver Kilbourn, the British coal miner who discovers his gift for painting in Lee Halls’ vivid drama, “The Pitmen Painters,” that something extraordinary seemed to happen. The TimeLine Theatre production, directed by BJ Jones (and seen by both Erica Daniels and Martha Lavey), made him a star.

Asked if it felt like a breakthrough role, Waller, intense but shy, mused: “It’s a hard question. The press recognition was somewhat overwhelming. And the play clearly connected with a lot of people.”

Making his Steppenwolf debut is something else.

“Steppenwolf is why I came to Chicago in the first place,” said the actor, who grew up in Iowa (where his mother enrolled him in improv and theater classes to keep him out of trouble). He lived in Kansas, Texas, Seattle and Dublin, Ireland, before arriving in Chicago in 2000.

“I had a teacher in college who described the company’s production of ‘True West,’ with all the broken toasters and blood on the stage, and I knew that was what I wanted to do.”

Now, working at the theater, he admitted: “The amount of talent in the room is staggering — the level of experience and knowledge. And I can’t say enough good things about Anna [Shapiro], who talks like a truck driver and is extremely funny.

“As for my character, Andrei, he just wants everybody to be happy, and to be left alone. He is a man who has never met his potential, and then things go from bad to worse as everything spirals out of control. But he is madly in love with his controlling wife — the woman who definitely runs the household.” Waller’s own wife is choreographer Ellen Gahl Waller, who teaches with the Trinity Irish Dancers.

While Neff is not sure what her next stage job will be, Waller is already booked. He’ll be part of the cast of David Cromer’s production of “Sweet Bird of Youth” at the Goodman.



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