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Tracy Letts on His New Steppenwolf Play and Chicago’s “Talent Drain”

After a long hiatus, the Pulitzer–winning playwright revisits Midwestern dysfunction in Mary Page Marlowe.

Photo: Amanda Friedman

How did the idea for Mary Page Marlowe, your new play about the inner life of a Midwestern woman, come about?

I had been thinking about the ways in which I seem to be different people at different times in my life. And around that time, my mom passed away. That was a bad time. I was pretty alone. I wrote Mary Page pretty quickly—a month, six weeks maybe.

Did your mom and her passing inspire this play?

Mary Page Marlowe is not my mother in any way, shape, or form, but my mom was an inspiration for the play. The one thing Mary Page shares with my mom—and with most of the good, interesting, strong women I’ve known in my life—is a real sense of mystery. My mother had those moments of consideration about where she wound up. It’s human nature to question, How did I get here?

Both Mary Page Marlowe and August: Osage County, your 2007 Pulitzer-winning play, explore generational repetition—like with the substance abuse Mary Page shares with her parents and her son. Why return to that theme?

I’m an alcoholic in recovery, so it resonates with me for that reason. We all take huge amounts of stuff from the previous generation, and it’s not just substance abuse. It’s attitudes, inclination, politics, social views. It’s hard to make breaks from the generation before. We do, to some extent, but it’s incremental.

When you decided to stop drinking, what was that time in your life like?

Looking back on it now, it felt more dire than just making a decision. It’s something I did for my survival—survival on all fronts, not just physical survival, but the survival of my artistic life and the life of the mind.

How did coming of age as a playwright in Chicago inform your writing?

I don’t think I’d be as good a playwright if I had come up somewhere else. Chicago is a town that works very hard. We don’t get a lot in return. We certainly don’t make any money. But we do it because we love the work. I think that makes for better plays.

What do you make of the state of Chicago theater today?

It’s real strong. There are frustrations. You always wish there was more money, there was more support, but the truth is Chicago theater renews itself. You lose a lot of people who go off to New York or Los Angeles, and it’s a frustration to see the talent drain, but there’s always a new group to come along behind and replenish it.

Tracy Letts in 'Homeland'
Tracy Letts as Andrew Lockhart in Homeland  Photo: Courtesy of Showtime

You set almost all your plays in the Midwest. What interests you about the region and its mindset?

It’s where I’m from, it’s who I know, it’s what I know. And I’m just sick of stories set in New York and Los Angeles. I get so bored with it.

You’re more interested than most straight male playwrights in portraying complex women who aren’t defined solely in relation to men.

They’ve always fascinated me, mystified me, aggravated me, enticed me, terrified me. I suppose it comes as a result of having a lot of good, smart, strong women in my life. They seem
to be—I’m going to get myself in trouble—the superior gender. Maybe that’s why they’ve gotten a raw deal.

Why use six actresses—plus a toddler—to portray Mary Page Marlowe over her life?

There is a collage effect that takes place where you start to see Mary Page as one person, though she’s portrayed by a variety of people. I found it a really interesting way to approach this question of identity and our shifting narratives about ourselves.

You’ve always acted and written. How do those two sides of your career affect each other?

[Steppenwolf actress] Amy Morton refers to it as crop rotation. Acting energizes my writing brain, and writing energizes my acting brain. I shot six movies last year. What happens in the movie biz is they see you play an asshole in a suit, like I did on Homeland, and then they want you to play the asshole in the suit.

You’re also acting in Divorce, the upcoming HBO series with Sarah Jessica Parker. What is your character?

Asshole in a suit.

GO Mary Page Marlowe runs March 31 to May 29 at Steppenwolf, 1650 N. Halsted St. $20 to $89. steppenwolf.org

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