Tracy Letts' latest play premieres at Steppenwolf
The day before the first performance of his latest play, Tracy Letts is cool as a cucumber.
"My temperature doesn't rise. I sleep well. I don't chew my nails," he says of the long, tension-filled days preceding the world premiere of "Mary Page Marlowe."
The play opens Sunday, April 10, at Steppenwolf Theatre, where Letts has been a member for 14 years. It's the latest work in a career best known for "August: Osage County," a biting dramedy that won Pulitzer and Tony awards in 2008 and was made into a 2013 film starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts.
But Letts isn't just a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and Tony Award-winning actor. Lately, Letts has emerged as something of a storefront theater Samaritan.
Published reports named him as the "anonymous benefactor" who intervened on behalf of Mary-Arrchie Theatre, a fixture on Chicago's storefront scene for 30 years, which is closing for good after its production of David Mamet's "American Buffalo" concludes. When the play's publisher and licensing agent tried to prohibit Mary-Arrchie from publicizing the show, Letts stepped in to ensure Mary-Arrchie got the word out.
He also helped salvage Next Theatre's proposed production of "Richard III," starring Gift Theatre founder and artistic director Michael Patrick Thornton, which was canceled after the Evanston theater abruptly closed in November 2014.
"I was heartbroken by that. I hated to see Next go away," said Letts. "I didn't do much. I offered support."
He did more than that, Thornton said of Letts, who set up meetings with Steppenwolf's then artistic director Martha Lavey and associate Erica Daniels. That led Steppenwolf to co-produce "Richard III" with The Gift. The show runs through May 1 at the Garage Theatre.
"Our production would not have happened without Tracy. He was the first to reach out to us," said Thornton. "Then he put his money where his mouth is and became a production sponsor.
"We're indebted to him," he said.
Besides championing off-Loop theater, Letts has been putting the final touches on "Mary Page Marlowe," a play chronicling the life of a middle-class woman from middle America. It's currently in previews at Steppenwolf.
"Women have a unique set of challenges. Those challenges are interesting to me," said Letts, who credits his interest in women's stories to a lifetime spent in the company of strong females, including his late mother, author and educator Billie Letts ("Where the Heart Is").
Six actresses -- including Tony Award-winner Blair Brown and Tony nominee Carrie Coon (Letts' wife) -- share the titular role. The production reunites Letts with Steppenwolf artistic director Anna D. Shapiro.
"She's so smart, so adept, especially with new material," said Letts of his longtime colleague, who helmed "August: Osage County" in Chicago and on Broadway. "If she's passionate about something, I don't question it."
The inverse also applies. "The person who's most passionate tends to win," he says.
Acting has kept Letts busy the last few years. He earned a 2013 Tony for playing George in Steppenwolf's 50th anniversary revival of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" He returned to Broadway in 2014 in Will Eno's "The Realistic Joneses." A recurring role on Showtime's "Homeland" followed, along with film roles in 2015's "The Big Short" and "Elvis & Nixon," which opens this month and stars fellow storefront veteran Michael Shannon. Letts also appears in an upcoming HBO comedy titled "Divorce" starring Sarah Jessica Parker.
But for now, writing occupies him. "Linda Vista," about a middle-aged man's midlife crisis, premieres at Steppenwolf in 2017. He's also working on a new play for 2018. At 50, he still feels restless.
"I'm not a put-your-feet-up kind of guy. I despise recreation in all forms," Letts said, smiling. "I'm happiest in a theater rehearsal. I know who I am in a theater rehearsal."
"Mary Page Marlowe"Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650 or steppenwolf.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; through May 20. Also 2 p.m. May 11, 18 and 25. In previews through Saturday, April 9; opens Sunday, April 10