Dramatic Effect

The director Robert Falls made his name putting on groundbreaking shows that examine the psychological wreckage of tortured souls. Now, celebrating 20 years with the Goodman Theatre and settled into fatherhood, he is tackling the story of one of the most tormented fathers ever

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photograph by Andreas Larsson
Location: courtesy of A New Leaf Studio and Garden
Chair: courtesy of Design Within Reach

“I’ve been through analysis,” Falls says. “I’ve been through a great deal of reflection in my life. I’m a great believer in psychiatry, psychoanalysis, the psychological process, and I think we are all enormous products, finally, of our background and our parents.”

Robert Falls says he has grown “Scared Of Shakespeare"- an odd admission for a man who has spent his life in the theatre and whose 1985 production of Hamlet ignited his career. That show at the Wisdom Bridge Theatre opened with a coffin overflowing with blood on a bare stage. King Claudius held a televised press conference, attended by his queen in Nancy Reagan red. Del Close’s Polonius brilliantly channeled Henry Kissinger. The troubled young prince, played by Aidan Quinn, spray-painted a wall with to be or not to be.

Falls was 31 then. Jane Nicholl Sahlins, at the time on the founding board of Wisdom Bridge, remembers “a tall redheaded gangly guy doing fantastic stuff.”

Today, 52 and the artistic director of the Goodman Theatre, Falls remains physically imposing, although his six-foot five-inch frame is now capped with soft gray waves rather than the aggressive red curls of his youth. He has lost 70 pounds in the past year, but not his love for good food (“I put myself in the great Falstaffian tradition of hedonist,” Falls says), nor his appetite for the dramas of the modern American canon of pain, including his critically acclaimed productions of Eugene O’Neill’s plays and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. As Falls explains, “I’m drawn to big, passionate, messy works, messy emotions, messy people, messy lives.”

For 30 years, he has been a force of nature on stages in Chicago and around the world, putting on huge, groundbreaking shows, winning accolades, suffering some flops, deriding critics, rescuing the Goodman, winning devotees and skeptics. Now, on a warm spring morning as he sits in the spacious backyard of his comfortable Evanston home, the setting somewhat belies his rambunctious past. The house, for example, features the blissful domesticity of the Falls clan, which includes his wife, Kat, and their three children, ten-year-old Declan, seven-year-old Vivienne, and four-year-old Connor. Many who know Falls say Kat and fatherhood have changed him.

“This was a kid who was a star director at 18. This is a guy who’s had it always,” says Stuart Oken, a close friend since college. “It was about his maturity as a human being catching up with his maturity as a director.”

Thinking back on his Hamlet, Falls says that he “knew nothing.” He was “bold and fearless and stupid and arrogant.” After that, he says, “I kind of fell off the Shakespeare wagon for 20 years.” Still, “what I would love to do is to get back to that same stupidity, that same boldness, that same fearlessness, which is very difficult now in my 50s.”

This fall he will have his chance. To mark his 20th anniversary with the theatre, the Goodman will open its 2006-07 season with Falls ’s production of King Lear, starring Stacy Keach. The return to Shakespeare is more than a little daunting, but as the auspicious anniversary approached, Falls realized he “wanted to do something rather grand” that was “daring and challenging.” Fatherhood, he says, helped give him the courage to tackle this latest project. “When you identify with Hamlet your entire life, there comes a shift when suddenly you’re able to read Lear and identify with Lear.”

“I’m drawn toward big, passionate, messy works, messy emotions, messy people, messy lives.”

Falls has been praised for his astute direction of American theatrical classics that examine the psychological wreckage of tortured souls, and he recognizes that-in theatre, anyway-your personal life can inform and shape your professional output. “I’ve been through analysis,” he says. “I’ve been through a great deal of reflection in my life. I’m a great believer in psychiatry, psychoanalysis, the psychological process, and I think that we are all enormous products, finally, of our background and our parents.”

Falls spent his first 12 years in Ashland, Illinois . His mother, a farme r’s child, had persuaded his father to return to her small hometown near Springfield after they met and married at Florida Southern University in the early 1950s. Falls says his father, an Irish Catholic from New York, was always an outsider in downstate Illinois. Arthur Falls held a variety of municipal and political jobs, including running Gerald Ford’s 1976 presidential campaign in Illinois (Ford won here but lost nationally), before retiring from political activities and moving to Sarasota, Florida, in 1978. The two remain close, though the younger Falls is a longtime liberal.

Falls credits his first theatrical memory to his father. He recalls a reenactment for Ashland’s 100th birthday done in “an old West setting” and “my father rolling a cigarette onstage.” The young Falls was struck by two things: the “detail of a man onstage in a cowboy hat rolling a cigarette” and the fact that it was his father, who didn’t smoke. This glimpse into the notion of character and image made a lasting impression.

Art Falls, in turn, credits his late wife, Nancy, a homemaker, with starting their elder son’s theatrical career. Mother and son became close when the small boy broke his arches jumping off a bunk bed while playing Superman. His doctor prescribed home rest and special shoes. To entertain her child, his mother “bought him records of musicals, and that was a big influence on him,” Art Falls says. “You name any show in the forties, fifties, and sixties and he had them.”

When Bob was 12, his family-he’s the eldest of four children-moved to Urbana, where his father took a job in the admissions office at the University of Illinois and pursued a graduate degree in political science. Because he did not make friends easily, Bob felt isolated. When Art Falls transferred to the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle Campus, the family moved to Lombard and a whole new world opened up for Bob. “He just asked questions like mad,” recalls Ralph Amelio, Falls ’s cinema studies teacher at Willowbrook High School.

Initially, Art Falls did not embrace his son’s life in the theatre. He had helped him get a legislative scholarship to the University of Illinois. “I thought that he had the voice, the intelligence, and the desire to be a lawyer,” Art Falls says today. About two weeks before Bob left for college, he persuaded his father that theatre was a better choice.

photograph: Matthew Modine

Falls photographed in 2004 by the actor Matthew Modine during rehearsals for Finishing the Picture

Soon he had persuaded the critical world, as well. His student production of Michael Weller’s Moonchildren was good enough to land a spot at Chicago’s hallowed St. Nicholas Theatre, and won Falls-then a college senior-a Joseph Jefferson Award for outstanding direction. Richard Christiansen, the longtime Chicago Tribune critic, recalls being quite taken with that 1976 show and with Falls ’s minimal production of John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men, which earned Falls his second Jeff Award. Of Mice and Men was strong enough, Christiansen says, to revive Wisdom Bridge and to catapult Falls into its artistic directorship. Soon Wisdom Bridge joined the list of theatres now seen as seminal to that fecund and magical period in Chicago stage history in the late seventies and early eighties.

In 1986, the Goodman came calling. Falls “was young, strong, done some stuff-not exactly my stuff-but the guy had the drive and we got him,” recalls Lewis Manilow, who was on the Goodman search committee and is the honorary president of the Goodman board. “It was a low point. Couldn’t have been lower financially. It was as low artistically, but he raised the artistic level.”

  Falls made sure that he had help. He insisted that Frank Galati, who had been a contender for the job, be appointed Goodman’s associate director. And in his first year, Falls also brought in Michael Maggio as his second associate director. “It seemed fantastic, and it seemed absolutely appropriate,” says Martha Lavey, now the artistic director of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. “And then, of course, the moves that he made in his early years were just so salutary.”