(Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/9.)
New York gets all the attention but in my experience Chicago is just as vibrant a theatrical city. In some ways even more so, because it is free from the intense commercial pressures of Broadway. Robert Falls, who runs the prestigious Goodman theatre, put it succinctly some years ago. “If you have a success in Chicago,” he told me, “it’s pleasant, but it doesn’t change your life. And if you have a failure, people still speak to you the next day.”
The city is also a hotbed of new writing and, in the course of a trip to see Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Tug of War: Foreign Fire, I caught two premieres by writers well-known in Britain: Tracy Letts and Rebecca Gilman. Letts is mainly identified with his epic family drama August: Osage County, but his latest play, Mary Page Marlowe at Steppenwolf theatre, is ambitious in a different way. It attempts nothing less than to put on stage, in under an hour and a half, the nonlinear story of a woman’s life. The titular figure is not presented as heroic or especially admirable, simply a woman who, in her experience of divorce, family-raising and infidelity, never fully works out who she is. She remains a mystery to herself.