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Steppenwolf Remembers Martha Lavey As Driven, Impassioned Theater Visionary

By Ted Cox | October 10, 2017 5:35am
 Martha Lavey was an actress and later artistic director at Steppenwolf Theatre, guiding the company to some of its greatest heights.
Martha Lavey was an actress and later artistic director at Steppenwolf Theatre, guiding the company to some of its greatest heights.
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Steppenwolf Theatre/Joel Moorman

RANCH TRIANGLE — Steppenwolf Theatre paid tribute to its longtime artistic director Martha Lavey Monday night with a loving, heartfelt, clear-eyed two-hour memorial of her life and career.

Lavey, who died earlier this year age 60, was remembered as a passionate defender of the company and of Chicago theater in general who guided Steppenwolf into its maturity after the original stars had "decamped for Hollywood."

Jeff Perry recalled helping to start Steppenwolf in a church basement in 1976, but said, "The people who had built that first campfire" had left behind a thin bench when Lavey, who had joined the ensemble as an actress only two years before, was appointed artistic director in 1995.

Perry said they realized they needed to grow and diversify the ensemble, with actors, playwrights, directors and other theater artists, in order for Steppenwolf to survive.

"We quickly realized Martha had this handled," he said, by instilling an "environment of trust and respect and challenge."

Steppenwolf Executive Director David Schmitz lauded her "transformative leadership" over a critical 20-year period from 1995 to 2015.

Under her direction, the ensemble added her successor as artistic director, Anna Shapiro, as well as playwrights Tracy Letts and Tarell Alvin McCraney and actors Alana Arenas, Kate Arrington, Ian Barford and William Petersen, to name just a few. It ushered Letts' "August: Osage County" to acclaim on Broadway and the Pulitzer Prize, and offstage in Chicago it created the School at Steppenwolf and the Garage Theater, next door to the main theater at 1650 N. Halsted St.

Theater veteran Ben Cameron credited Lavey with revitalizing Steppenwolf after many of the company's original stars had "decamped for Hollywood." She "diversified the company," doubled the size of the ensemble and made Steppenwolf serve "theater as public square."

Lavey herself was fond of saying that it was no accident democracy and drama developed at the same time and place with the Greeks, and that approach seemed made for Chicago.

"She was entirely focused on where she lived, on making plays for Chicago," playwright Bruce Norris said.

Andy White of Lookingglass Theater recalled her "tractor-beam stare" as "the most relentless inquisitor," both for theater people personally and their art onstage.

"She was just probing for the hardened stone of truth," he said.

Cameron mentioned her "cloud of Mrs. Robinson-meets-Miss Havisham hair," swept back with a trademark shock of gray at the temple, and actress Jenny Avery recalled how she was always "wrapped in scarves."

Actress Amy Morton recalled her withering wit. A crash of scenery once prompted her to say, "Ah, positively Swiss in its precision," and she once explained the response of a dismissive prospective mother-in-law by saying, "You would've thought I called the baby Jesus a poop sandwich."

Norris said, "She created opportunities for hundreds if not thousands of people," at Steppenwolf and other companies.

Many mentioned how she would hold forth at the restaurants Topo Gigio's in Old Town and at Vinci up the street on Halsted.

Lavey was an actress before, during and after her tenure as Steppenwolf artistic director, and colleague Curt Columbus recalled, "She was most herself and most transcendentally beautiful when she was onstage," specifically citing "Aunt Dan and Lemon." He called her style "raw and exposed with an intellectual clarity throughout."

Shapiro likewise mentioned Lavey's "intellectual fireworks," but said they were mixed with "an almost startling girlishness." She made joking reference to her recognition of how tough it was to fill Lavey's role in supporting actors, playwrights and other artists without coddling them, adding, "I was never as good at helping her as she was at helping me."

Norris recalled how she sometimes lived hard and fast, and fought with anorexia in the '90s.

"She always would say to me, 'Hey man, I'm on the early out plan,'" he said. "She maximized the time she had."

The Lavey family was represented by her older sister Michele, who said, "We bid Mart adieu in her favorite place on Earth surrounded by people she loved."