I recently had the privilege of sitting down for a Q&A for my TDF day job with Steppenwolf veteran Rondi Reed, who's definitive as Mattie Fae in Tracy Letts' August: Osage County. The story is here, but the interview was so strong and interesting (to fans of August: Osage County, and of Steppenwolf--and who isn't?) that I've decided to put up the entire Q&A, with a version of my potted preamble, below. Good, hearty fare. Enjoy!
From True West to The Grapes of Wrath, from Buried Child to The Pain and the Itch, Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre has made Middle American family dysfunction a signature preoccupation, even as the nearly 35-year-old company has developed one of the nation’s most durable and versatile acting ensembles--a kind of extended family in itself.
Both its thematic specialty and ensemble prowess are on brilliant display in Tracy Letts’ sprawling, disturbing, hilarious epic of family collapse, August: Osage County, which has already nabbed the Pulitzer Prize and a best play award from the New York Drama Critics Circle, as well as a raft of Tony nominations.
Among those nominated is Rondi Reed, a Steppenwolf member who joined up in 1979 as one of the troupe’s “resident character women,” as she now puts it, and who quickly made a particular specialty of taking on not only roles much older than herself but especially unsavory and unsympathetic characters.
In August: Osage County, she plays Mattie Fae, the brassy, larger-than-life aunt to the play's central Weston sisters. The verbally abusive, seemingly congenitally insensitive Mattie Fae does indeed get put in her place in one memorable, applause-garnering moment late in the show--and then goes on to reveal the show's biggest secret, along with unforeseen layers of complexity.
In person, Reed is a friendly and voluble trouper, with a lot to say about acting, theatre and the vision thing. She sat down to talk with TDF during a dinner break between the Wednesday matinee and evening performances at the Music Box, the more intimate theatre to which August recently moved after opening at the cavernous Imperial.
Q: I’m going to go out on a limb and say: This play is pretty good.
Rondi Reed: (laughing) I had done Tracy’s The Man From Nebraska, but I’d been doing Wicked in Chicago for like two years. And then Steppenwolf says, “Tracy’s written a new play.” I kept saying, "I can’t do it!" Every time Tracy would see me, he’d be like, "When are you getting out of Wicked?" And I’d go, "I’m not! I’m not getting out of Wicked to do your play!” We had a mutual manager for a while, and she’s like, “One another thing we have talk about--Tracy’s play.” I’m like, “I’m not doing his play!” All these people were telling me, and I was like, “Would you get off my back about Tracy’s play?”
Q: You already had a good gig.
Rondi: I was committed. Then, out of the blue, Wicked said, “We’re going to put you on creative hiatus.” My agent said, “What does that mean?” Well, this is what they do to shake it up artistically, because they have so many people and so many companies. So I called Steppenwolf and I said, “Remember that play?” And they were like, “Are you kidding? Yes!”
The ironic thing is, Tracy had written this role with me specifically in mind, because they were telling him, “Write for the ensemble.” So I was one of the people he specifically started to tailor a part for, and I was the one who kept saying, “I can’t do it, I can’t do it.” I really didn’t think it was me until I read it, but even then I thought: I’ve done this kind of part before. It wasn’t until one day in rehearsal and I was going off on one of these Mattie Fae rants, and I just stopped and I turned to him and I said, “Oh, I get it. OK.”
Q: The dysfunctional Midwestern family seems to be a Steppenwolf stock in trade.
Rondi: It is, and that’s what we come from; that’s our repertoire. That’s what why love Sam Shepard, and that’s why we love those tortured British plays as well--they’re not from the Midwest, but they have those twisted familial things: Pinter, Jim Lancaster. I think we’re very fond of all that kind of stuff, and we go right to it. The stuff that other people might be repulsed by, we’re definitely attracted to.
Q: I just heard someone in the lobby after the show saying, “I can’t wait to get back to my functional family!”
Rondi: During the holidays, it was almost palpable. The strike ended last winter and we started up again, and you could just feel it in the audience, because people were in the middle of it with their families. Or you’d go out afterwards and somebody would say, “Thank God my family’s not that bad,” or “I don’t feel as bad about my family now.”
Q: This play is so dark and yet it plays like a comedy.
Rondi: That is very much Tracy’s sensibility as a writer and as a person. People say, “Is it a comedy?” And I say, “Yes. It’s beyond black comedy--it’s pitch-black comedy.” But it comes out of the situations and the characters; it’s a character- and story-driven humor.
Q: Do you ever find yourself playing the gags to the audience?
Rondi: Well, that’s why the director is there. Once we got running and open [at the Imperial], we got very comfortable. We were in a large house; the Imperial was about three times the size of our theatre in Chicago. And our director, Anna Shapiro, came in at one point and said, “OK, I’m now seeing the kind of”--I shouldn’t say this--“Broadway acting that I don’t like to see.” She said, “You’re all loud enough; you don’t have hammer out every plot point so people get it. I want us to remember where we came from, what it was like when we first did it.” But that happens with any group of actors that gets comfortable. When we first came in, we were not loud enough; it took us a little while to take that stage at the Imperial and own it, because it’s a musical theatre house; it’s not for straight plays. The intimacy in the Music Box is fabulous; it feels like they’re right there in front of us.
Q: You joined Steppenwolf in 1979, which wasn’t quite the beginning of the company, but close. How did you hook up with them?
Rondi: Down at school, at Illinois State University. They originally asked me to come and join at the beginning, but I had just fallen madly in love with my boyfriend, and we went off to Minneapolis. Then four years later they were moving into the city and they were expanding the company and they said, “We don’t have any character women. We want you to come and be our resident character woman.”
Q: I’ve read that you were often cast much older than you were.
Rondi: Always. In any other professional theatre, I would never even get in the door to play those characters, because they’d say, “You’re too young.” But now I’m the right age, unfortunately--or fortunately, I’m not sure.
Q: The moment when Francis Guinan, as your husband, puts you in your place with a big speech near the end of the show--does that always get a big round of applause, and how does that feel?
Rondi: You know, I always end up playing the characters that get a comeuppance.
Q: The scenes where the audience cheers, “Yeah! Get her!”
Rondi: Right. When I played Sister Woman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, I got booed during curtain call. I have a very tough skin about that. I did Retreat From Moscow in Chicago a couple of years ago, and I was going on with one of my big speeches to my husband, saying, “If you hate me, say you hate me; if you want to leave me, just tell me something!” And from the back row, I hear, “You can tell her to shut up!” You get used to it, I guess.
I jokingly say to people, if they laugh at Mattie Fae, then they pay later--I will make them pay with my big revelation. I will show them it’s not all what you think it is, as it is in life.
Q: I love that about the play--none of these characters are one-dimensional.
Rondi: It’s interesting, when Tracy first wrote that scene where the big secret is revealed, he had a huge two-paragraph chunk of explanation: "Well, your father and I were in love, and would have run away..." He wrote it, and I said to the director, "I don’t know about this," and Tracy went, "Well, don’t women always like things to be explained more?" And I was like, "No, I don’t."
It’s also a generational thing; they don’t need to know why it didn’t work out--it didn’t work out. At one point, she turns to Barbara and says, “I don’t know why Little Charles is such a disappointment to me--maybe he…” And then she just turns and says, “I don’t know why.” I mean, she clearly has not been on an analyst’s couch for this; she’s just gone on with her life. And you look at it and go: Not everything in life is explained and analyzed and dissected, and there are a lot of people who live with the burdens of that kind of stuff in their life, and they never talk about it--maybe on their deathbed.
I like that, because I think real life is messy; real life doesn’t always get tied up. And you say, “Why would they do that?” Well, they just did. If you want to clinically analyze the show, you absolutely can, but I think what makes it resonate with people is that we all carry around unspoken, unacknowledged human things. Maybe as a child or a spouse you get the other end of it, and you don’t know why: You may never know why your father could never come to grips with this, or why nobody has said they love you. I don’t think the play would resonate if it didn’t have that sensibility.
Q: In A Fall to Earth, you also played an unsympathetic mother. You told my Chicago colleague, Kerry Reid, that felt you were able to go there because you lost your mother fairly early on.
Rondi: I was 12 when she died. It’s not that I didn’t have a relationship with her--I didn’t have all that baggage from age 12 on.
Q: But that hasn’t given you an idealized image of motherhood?
Rondi: No, it wasn’t idealized--it was just sort of like a blank page, an open slate. That’s what allows me to play this, which is why Tracy’s smart and wrote it with me in mind. I have an affinity for playing these people with the truth of who they are, and I’m not embarrassed about how ugly they are, and I’m not afraid of what they show. Those are the kind of things I’m attracted to, because to me they’re naked in a way that I think is really interesting onstage. You don’t always get to play people like that.
Q: The play is set in Oklahoma, and I wondered about how it treats class and regional identity. Your character, after all, is named Mattie Fae, she’s big and loud; it might be fair to call her “trashy.” What’s funny is that I know liberal, urban New Yorkers who have no affinity for or background in Middle America who nevertheless seem concerned that a portrayal like this is condescending to Middle America.
Rondi: Well, I have to tell you, when I first read some of it, I went, “Now, come on.” I said, “Aren’t we kind of tipping our hand here?” And they went, “Have you been to Oklahoma?” I’ve been to Texas, and parts of smaller-town Texas. There would be times when we’d question a line, and Tracy would quote verbatim from his family. It’s a different world.
It’s all relative to where you are, and what you grow up with, and what is success to you. Tracy specifically spoke about Charlie and Mattie Fae having money; that doesn’t mean they have taste. He based Charlie partly on one of his uncles who was in the upholstery business, but who had made his fortune in upholstery by doing all the Kentucky Fried Chickens in Japan, the vinyl booths.
Q: You can’t make that up.
Rondi: No, you can’t. So Francis and I went: Ding! Charlie and Mattie Fae drive a very nice car, and have a very nice house. We even talked about at one point how she probably redecorates it a lot--there’s a lot of Home Shopping Network going on there. I think they’re very much a product of where they come from, and you know how most people don’t venture too much outside what’s familiar.
Q: With all the Steppenwolf actors in town lately--Martha Plimpton in Top Girls, Laurie Metcalf in November--do you all have a favorite Steppenwolf hangout or watering hole?
Rondi: Given that our show is three and a half hours long, not really! When we were off last week, we went to see November, and afterwards Laurie said, “You wanna go out?” I looked at my watch and said, “It’s 10 o’clock--I’m not even into Act Three of August by the time 10 o’clock rolls around!” We went over to the Bar Centrale at Joe Allen’s and there was nobody there--it was so great. And then all of a sudden, all these people came in, and I thought, This is why we don’t go out after August--because by the time we go out, everybody’s been there and drinking. It’s just a different kind of discipline when you do something like this, because the majority of your time is spent here.
And also, we’re older; Steppenwolf sort of had the party-hearty reputation for a long time. We’ve done our share of that; now we’re more likely to go home and open a bottle of wine.
Q: I know you came to New York with The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. Was that your first New York show?
Rondi: No, I came with Grapes of Wrath--I was Third Dust Bowl Woman From the Left. I understudied Ma Joad, Lois Smith, but I was so young.
Q: Did you ever go on?
Rondi: I never did, thank God! Lois was a trouper. We spent about four years on that project; it started in the late ’80s, and to have gone with it to the National Theatre in London was just an amazing experience, and to have it win best play Tony in 1990.
Q: Steppenwolf is still going strong after all these year...
Rondi: We are. Not everybody in Chicago thinks we’re what we were. Well, we’re not--now we’re a middle-aged theatre, and we’ve got 40-something members; we just added, I think, five African-American company members and some younger actors. We swore we’d never become an institution, but we are; it happened, and that’s the product of a great amount of hard work and success. Along with that comes all the challenges.
Q: To have this play here must be a big vindication.
Rondi: Oh, it’s huge. Our artistic director, Martha Lavey, definitely has put her energy and support into the development of new plays. With Tracy and Frank Galati, Austin Pendleton, Tina Landau as members--we have writer/director/collaborators in our ensemble now, so Martha can say to Tracy Letts, “Let’s have you write something with the ensemble in mind.”
Q: I guess I hadn’t realized that he wrote it specifically for the company.
Rondi: He wrote it on commission, essentially.
Q: Now that I think of it, I can’t imagine any other company he could have written it for.
Rondi: Well, we didn’t know who was going to be in it. This is the thing: You write a play for Steppenwolf, but you never know who’s going to be in it. Jeff Perry is doing Gray’s Anatomy, who knows if he can do it? And we didn’t have anybody to play Violet. Laurie desperately wanted to play Violet, but the director, Anna Shapiro, would say, “You’re too young; you can’t do it." Twenty years ago, we could have gotten a way with it, but we can’t get away with that now.
It was a really happy accident that there are so many ensemble members together. It really fell into place. There are so many things about this play that, to my mind, have been divinely guided from the get-go. And the fact that Tracy’s dad, Dennis Letts, came into it because someone else dropped out, and what he brought, his being from Oklahoma, and the story being part of his own life. It was one of those things. It just happened to be the right time and the right place and the right people for us. The stars were aligned.
It’s interesting when you sit back, because I remember Tracy said, “It has to go, it has to go now to New York.” We were saying, “Well, we can wait,” and he said, “No, we can’t wait--it has to go now.”
Q: Why did he have such a feeling of urgency?
Rondi: I think, and I’ve had discussions with other people about it, there’s something--I don’t think it’s just for writers--I think there’s something indicative within an artist that knows: This is the time that this needs to be there. And he had a certainty. Some people would call it ego--in a meeting, he turned to us and said, “Well, whether Steppenwolf goes with it or not, this play is going.” And we were kind of like, “Excuse me?” But I look back and remember that I sat in the room and listened to Gary Sinise say, “We have to take True West to New York, and it has to be now.”
Q: He just knew.
Rondi: Oh my God, and the entire company was ripped apart by that. I was one of the ones who said, “It’ll never be the same.” It’s about vision. We’ve been very lucky to have those people in those positions at that time with the vision. But it is a crapshoot. Tracy also said, “Hey, if we’re gonna gamble, let’s go big. I wanna put it all on red.” And he said, “I’m a gambler. I have a gambler’s sensibility.” So I admire that, because that’s not me--I go over something 78,000 times. I will leap eventually.
It’s a fascinating thing to me: How do you know what is the thing to do? When my ex-husband, Stephen Eich, was running the company, he said, “We have to get Grapes of Wrath to London.” And I’m like, “London? What the hell?” And he said, “I’m telling you, it has to go to London. If it goes to London, it will go to Broadway.” Now I don’t how he knew that, but it was a smash in London, and we were so validated in London that there was no doubt that we would go to Broadway. There’s savvy and there’s intuition, and then there’s just this sort of thing that happens--this vision that, thank God, people have.
I remember I listened to Jeff Perry say, “We can change the face of American theatre history!” And I thought, “Oh my God, why did I quit my bank teller job? What am I doing? This guy is nuts!” I don’t think that way. in the case of Steppenwolf, a lot of the men think that way, and I think Martha Lavey, the current artistic director, sees down the road that we can get out of one of these writers we are fostering probably one or more than one great American play. We need to feed those writers and give them this fertile ground.
Q: From the days of Malkovich and Sinise, Steppenwolf has always had the reputation of being very male-driven.
Rondi: And look at the stage for this play! It’s like the women taking over--people are like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, this is Steppenwolf?” See, that was always a myth that was kind of propagated. I used to get interviewed when I was directing, and Amy Morton directs a lot at Steppenwolf, too, and they’d ask: “What’s it like to be a woman director?” And I said, “I don’t really consider myself a woman director. When I’m there, I’m a director.” The women were always supportive, but nobody wants to hear that.
Q: But women at Steppenwolf have to be the kind of women who can run with the boys, right?
Rondi: Absolutely--who can run with the boys and let the boys have whatever they have. I think they’re very smart women in Steppenwolf, always have been--strong, but never feeling that they had to lead: Joan Allen, Glenne Headly, Martha Plimpton. There have been a lot of incredibly strong, talented women. But it’s also great to know that the guys are going to be your advocates one way or the other.
And for Tracy, a man, to have written this--there have been women who have seen this play and said, “I don’t know how he knows!” And I asked him one time, and he said, “Oh, either my mother, an ex-girlfriend, somebody said almost all these things to me.”
Q: He contradicts the stereotype that to write strong women characters you have to be gay: Williams, Inge, Albee, Lorca.
Rondi: No. You do have to listen and be in tune. Tracy is a really terrific actor on his own, which I think is an incredible asset as a playwright. He’s a smart actor, he listens, he tunes in. He’s got an enormous sensibility and fearlessness as an actor. That helps.
Q: He also has a certain showman’s flair, it seems--I felt that in Bug and Killer Joe, too, that he knows to entertain an audience.
Rondi: His mother told me a story--you’ll love this. I said, “How did you know?” She said, “Oh, Rondi, from the time he was about six. We were having a dinner party one time, and he came down the stairs in a top hat and nothing else!” I said, “You knew you were doomed!” She said, “From that moment on!” They’re a family of writers and teachers and speakers.
And his dad, Dennis, was such an interesting and vibrant man. I mean, we didn’t know him very well; we spent such a short time with him. But he’s one of those guys who sort of hits you along the sides, like being passed by a comet: You absolutely were impacted by him. When he spoke to you, he was interested in you, individually. He would talk to me about the real Mattie Fae, he’d say, “Oh, the real Mattie Fae, Rondi--she was not as happy as you are. She was much more tragic.” This play is based on a lot of real people who went in and out of Tracy’s life.
Q: Have members of Tracy’s family seen the show, and what did they think?
Rondi: Well, he had to prepare them. Basically, his mother is one of those three sisters. Actually, Tracy’s mother said, “I think you were being kind to my mother in the show. It was much worse than that.”