It’s been nearly a quarter century since a nobody little Chicago ensemble called Steppenwolf took its production of Sam Shepard’s True West to New York and changed everything. One of the many consequences of that run at the Cherry Lane Theater was a rave by New York Times critic Mel Gussow, who singled out John Malkovich by comparing him to Jack Nicholson and calling his performance “an acting hole in one.” Malkovich became an immediate star. Gary Sinise followed a little later, as did other ensemble members, until Steppenwolf became a star in its own right, with a cool building and a National Medal of Arts award.

All of which helped establish a potent archetype: scrappy Chicago actors taking Gotham and then the world by storm.

That scenario seemed to be playing out again in late February 2004, when Bug opened at the Barrow Street Theatre in Greenwich Village. Written by Tracy Letts and directed in New York by Dexter Bullard–both substantial Chicago theater figures–Bug is a dark love story about a hard-luck divorcee’s entanglement with a young stranger who’s either paranoid or in huge trouble. The show received an over-the-moon Times review by Ben Brantley and even had a Malkovich in Michael Shannon, who played the stranger. “Bringing to mind an off-center, intelligent Leonardo DiCaprio,” Brantley wrote, “Mr. Shannon is an uncanny blend of calm and agitation, as tics disrupt his symmetrical features like ripples on a glassy pond. I’ve seldom seen a young actor turn up the volume of a performance so slowly and skillfully.” The production ran a full year, grossing $1.8 million on a capitalization of about $260,000, according to Variety. The cast won the Village Voice’s Obie award for best ensemble.

If history had been his guide, Shannon’s next move would’ve taken him farther and farther away from home–to Broadway or Hollywood–before he returned to Chicago as a big name. But he hasn’t followed the pattern. Call up A Red Orchid Theatre–with which he’s been associated since its founding in 1993–and chances are it’ll be him answering the phone.

A Red Orchid is almost literally a hole-in-the-wall of storefronts lining the east side of Wells just south of North Avenue, in Old Town. A long brick corridor leads back from the street to a little theater behind a tiny lobby with a box office about as big as the driver’s cabin in a CTA train car. When he isn’t performing, Shannon seems to spend most of his time in that box office. It’s an unlikely setting for a hot young actor, but then, Shannon’s priorities are unorthodox.

Shannon started acting 15 years ago, at the age of 16. A child of divorce, he regarded high school in Lexington, Kentucky, with “complete indifference,” he says, earning straight Fs in the final semester of his junior year. His mother sent him north to live with his father, a DePaul University accounting professor, and he spent some of his senior year at Evanston Township High School. There he had a role in The Taming of the Shrew, which got him hyped about acting, and he went “snooping around” Chicago looking for chances to do more of it.

Before long he was auditioning for Bullard, who cast him opposite Letts in Howard Korder’s suburban-wasteland plays Fun and Nobody at the now-defunct Next Lab.

“I had a surplus of emotions,” says Shannon, whose lanky frame, long face, wide forehead, and deep-set eyes give him the look of a young Raymond Massey. “I was a very screwy, screwed-up kid. [Theater] was this environment where I could go out and be myself and be lauded as opposed to being chastised for it.”

Letts remembers Shannon being very raw at that point–so raw, in fact, that he wondered why they had to choreograph fight scenes instead of just duking it out. But he also recalls a quality that remains intrinsic to Shannon’s appeal: “Michael has a marked ability to be very real at all times,” he says. “More than one person has remarked it’s kind of like watching a dog onstage.” He betrays no affectation or inhibition, in other words; he’s wholly present.

Shannon met A Red Orchid founder Guy Van Swearingen through his first acting teacher, Jane Brody, and started doing a little of everything at the theater–from box office duties to writing director’s notes (when the director forgot). “It’s such a magical little place,” Shannon says. “There’s nowhere I get tangled up in something more than at A Red Orchid Theatre.”

Even so, Shannon tried to go full-out Hollywood a few years back–and was succeeding at it, more or less, with roles in films such as Pearl Harbor and Kangaroo Jack. When Bullard called to offer him the Chicago premiere of Bug at A Red Orchid he turned it down at first, but couldn’t live with himself. “I just felt really empty,” he says, “like I hadn’t done something that my heart was invested in in a long time.

“It was a lesson. Basically ever since then I’ve been trying my damnedest to straddle these two worlds. And it’s tough,” he says. “It’s tough for my agent to wrap his head around. ‘Why are you in Chicago doing a play at some little tiny theater [that] nobody’s going to see you at anyway?’ Well, ’cause I am.”

Thing is, it’s working out: Shannon has managed to be local and international at the same time. Starting January 25 he’ll appear in Grace at the Northlight Theatre in Skokie, and after that he’ll direct Eugene Ionesco’s Hunger and Thirst at A Red Orchid. Then he’ll act in Oliver Stone’s untitled 9/11 movie, and in May he’ll “tag along” to Cannes for the premiere of William Friedkin’s film version of Bug, which features him opposite Ashley Judd.

“I’d seen a lot of really talented people that I loved working with, being around, leaving, going to LA and New York,” he says. “I never really understood why they did it. If everybody who’s so great just stayed here then people would be coming to us, begging us to let them be involved.

“Would I like to do a show on Broadway? You bet. As long as it doesn’t conflict with something I’m doing at A Red Orchid.”

Deanna Isaacs is on vacation.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Merideth, Jemal Countess |, Jim Smeal |