Steppenwolf Theatre

Steppenwolf’s so easy to make fun of anymore. With its big-time rep, its big-deal corporate backing, and its new big-budget building at North and Halsted, the formerly hungry ensemble’s opened up some biggish contradictions for itself. Watching it try to contend with those contradictions can be pretty amusing, in a desperate sort of way.

There’s the image problem, for instance. Steppenwolf built a crucial part of its reputation on nervy, kick-ass, “rock ‘n’ roll” productions of unconventional plays like True West and Balm in Gilead. Now that the company’s arrived, however, it’s started banking on prestige events: A $500,000 Grapes of Wrath. A visit from Albert Finney.

And yet even in their current grandiose state of mind, the captains of Steppenwolf feel obliged to preserve a whiff of the old edginess–if only to maintain their credentials. If only to impart an impression of continuity. So while they busy themselves with their mainstage revival of Harvey, they also produce a “Second Stage” show, featuring cheap tickets, torn-paper graphics, and a pledge to continue the well-known Steppenwolf “tradition of experimental, risk-taking drama!”

Which is a fine thing. Except that the first bill of one-acts they offer on their daring new Second Stage turns out to be about as experimental and risk-taking as the last novella I saw dramatized on PBS. As an attempt to carry on the legacy of rock ‘n’ roll theater, this show is to laugh.

As an attempt to engage and entertain an audience, on the other hand, it’s pretty good. Pairing Romulus Linney’s Tennessee with Ara Watson’s Bite the Hand, the Second Stage bill provides a vivid little debate on the subjects of marriage and sexual warfare, with perspectives ranging from the elegiac to the aggressively jaundiced.

Linney’s script is by far the tenderest of the two. Also the most hallucinatory. Cradled in L.J. Slavin’s hammer dulcimer music, Tennessee opens on the sort of North Carolina farm family that might drive into Mayberry every couple of months, for sugar and flour and a haircut at Floyd’s. Daddy Hershel stands around after a hard day and waxes rhapsodic about the house and 50 acres he just bought with the money he saved through “four years of groanin’ and sweatin’ on another man’s land.” When his winningly tart wife, Mary, asks if he’s hungry, he says, “Hungry for what’s mine”; when she wants to know what’s got into him, he says, “Satisfaction’s got into me.” He’s that kind of guy.

Linney’s Andy Griffith Show threatens to mutate into The Twilight Zone, however, when an old lady shows up, ringing a cowbell, palming a little mirror, and talking what seems to be gibberish. At first I thought she was meant to be taken as a specter–a pioneer ghost come back to haunt the current owners of her old digs. And in a sense I was right: the woman’s family did indeed own the ground Hershel loves so much. But she’s no ghost; she’s a living woman with a story to tell: the story of what took her away from the family stake.

Tennessee’s final transformation isn’t into The Twilight Zone after all, but into an American mountain version of The Taming of the Shrew. Through extended flashbacks, we see the old woman as a young Kate with a nasty mouth and a powerful, self-protective urge to “give men hell.” This Kate promises to marry the man who will take her across the Appalachians to Tennessee, knowing full well that the arduousness of the journey and the strangeness of the land will make any sensible man think twice.

But then along comes Griswold, who is something other than a sensible man. Griswold sells his precious bit of North Carolina bottomland, marries his beloved hellcat, and sets off with her on a months-long trip that, of course, parallels their hearts’ journey toward intimacy.

And brings them to what you might call a practical happiness. Linney’s shrew isn’t tamed so much as educated. Made wiser, less fearful. Given grain, depth, and hue. She matures, in short, through marriage.

Ara Watson isn’t nearly as sentimental about marriage and men. In fact, she’s downright acrid. Or intends to be so, anyway. Set in the 1940s, on the back porch of a South Dakota cathouse, Watson’s Bite the Hand gives us a pair of whores–April and Reba–who are preparing to part company. April’s about to leave for Sioux City to get married. It’s not what you’d call a love match, but April likes the prospect of being taken care of with only a few minutes’ work each night.

Reba’s skeptical. But she can’t convince April of the benefits of independence until one of April’s clients, Frank, shows up–like a human audiovisual aid–to announce that he just shot his wife and her lover dead.

Watson’s point, apparently, is that marriage is as much a commercial relationship as prostitution, only with fewer benefits. And no personal freedom. Why be a wage slave, or even a love slave, she wants to know, when you can own the means of production yourself?

It’s a familiar argument, with a lot of political truth to it. And yet it’s not quite as unambiguous as Watson makes it seem. By placing her tale in the small-town, midwestern past, Watson’s able to make Frank as troglodytic as she wants while rendering the prostitutes’ working conditions as idyllic as she pleases. There are no pimps or drugs or AIDS epidemics to complicate or subvert Reba’s independence. Not even a dose of the clap. This is a corn-fed, sepia-toned whorehouse, where a woman can do what she likes with people she knows. In her way, Watson owes as much to the Mayberry dream as Linney does.

Still, the piece is pretty funny: at once tart and amiable, wicked and ingratiating. Droll. The sort of thing, as I say, that you’d find on a PBS anthology series. Director Jim True handles it well, too. Ironically, True’s Late Night production of Terry Won’t Talk was one of the few genuinely risk-taking shows to come out of Steppenwolf in a while; here, his approach is a good deal more restrained. Clear and simple, with some sweetly effective touches–like the almost dancerly pantomime Leelai Demoz and Laura Kellogg’s couple perform to suggest their trip across the mountains in Tennessee. Even True’s mistakes are honest ones: the opening, interminable this-earth-is-mine passage in Tennessee fails mainly because he refuses to condescend to it with irony.

Wildly inappropriate in his short dreadlocks and coffee skin, Demoz nevertheless oozes a quiet rapture as Griswold and so offers a neat counterpoint to Kellogg’s sharp, strong, bewildered “Kate.” Mariann Mayberry makes April tough but not brassy, dumb but not stupid in Bite the Hand.

You may want to see these shows for the pleasure of seeing them. Just don’t go expecting the experimentalism Steppenwolf’s touting.

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