Steppenwolf Theatre

It’s a kind of a ritual with them, apparently–this Mojave thing. This loose but regular return to the American Outlaw Mythos. Every so often the Steppenwolf folks are sure to pull on the lizard-skin boots, climb into the Chevy pickup, squint hard, and pay yet another visit to the Sam Shepard Rattlesnake Dude Ranch, where rock ‘n’ roll cowboys riff trippingly down the Jim Morrison Trail, headed for the Big Questions.

These little excursions used to involve Shepard himself, whose True West not only helped Steppenwolf break through to a national audience but gave that audience most of its sense of what a Steppenwolf show looks, acts, and sounds like. Since then, scripts like Lynn Seifert’s Coyote Ugly have kept the tradition alive. Even Steppenwolf’s late, epic production of The Grapes of Wrath traveled somewhat the same region.

There’s a definite value in this. The occasional camp-out at the ranch constitutes a sign that Chicago’s most visible ensemble is still interested in working through and playing out American subjects. And as long as that interest holds, there’s a possibility we might yet get another idiomatic masterpiece like Balm in Gilead or Lydie Breeze or Orphans–or even True West–out of them.

But the fact that they keep trotting down all the same trails and setting up at all the same sites (and singing all the same campfire songs) suggests that the pilgrimage back to Shepard’s desert isn’t a rejuvenating experience, after all, but an empty habit. That they only return anymore because they figure it’s expected of them.

And sure enough, the cowboy duds are wearing a mite silly these days. Just as The Grapes of Wrath looked radically wrong ensconced in the cool sumptuousness of the Royal-George Theatre last year, so the outlaw image comes strange now to a company that’s about to build a space where patrons may elect to sit in private boxes.

It doesn’t help much, either, when the script that’s providing the occasion for Steppenwolf’s latest western junket turns out to be fairly idiotic. I deeply sympathize with what I take to be Marlane Meyer’s intention in The Geography of Luck: an attempt first to map out and then to transcend a deadly sexual brutality–a tradition and system of misogyny–as it makes its way down through generations of American fathers and sons, savage husbands and savaged wives. But even so, I couldn’t much take the intensely mannered, excruciatingly hip way in which she chose to stage that intention. From its long pseudo-bop monologues to its Vegas-vulgar imagery, this tale of how Dixie–a former rock star and wife murderer–finds salvation is hopelessly mired in dude-ranch affectation.

Nice production, though. Randall Arney’s direction offers a whiff of the dreamy, funny, half-sick love story Meyer seems to have envisioned.

Jim True is a fine Dixie–never taking the James Dean way out; maintaining his considerable poise despite the fact that Meyer places him on the listening end of so much babble, and that Arney makes him go around naked for no reason. Amy Morton’s wry vacancy is perfect for the role of Teddy, Dixie’s savior. Alan Wilder and Robert Breuler are their normal expert selves in supporting roles, while David Cromer gets to show a self-possession that’s never come out in the smaller roles I’ve seen him play in the past. Cromer provides a much better slimeball than I would have expected from him.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.