Actress Laurie Metcalf is not afraid to find humor in the perverse. Though she is perhaps best known for her role as Jackie Harris on the sitcom Roseanne, the 60-year-old actress more recently starred on the nihilistic HBO comedy Getting On, which showcased her talent for performing—if not embracing—characters whose realities are truly bizarre.
This month, Metcalf, an inaugural Steppenwolf Ensemble Member, continues the theme, returning to Chicago in Justin Tanner’s comedic one-act show, Voice Lessons. Opening May 31, Voice Lessons features Metcalf as a community-theater actress whose ambitions exceed her abilities. Four questions for Metcalf, below.
You’ve done “Voice Lessons” several times now with the same cast and director. What is it about this show?
It’s tailor-made for Chicago: It’s inappropriate, stupidly funny, kind of atrocious, a train wreck, energetic, awful—and it’s one of my favorite pieces I’ve ever done. We’ve always done it in tiny holes in the wall in San Francisco, New York, and a bunch of times in L.A.—but never in Chicago. When [artistic director] Anna Shapiro told all of us Steppenwolf people that we’d be opening this space, she asked if we knew anything we’d like to bring in. My hand was up in a second.
You play an actress who’s heavy on ambition, light on talent. Ever come across that over the years?
Have I come across people out of their league and wanting to pursue it anyway? Well, um … [laughs] Getting one’s footing in an acting career can be slippery. There’s just no guarantee, no matter how hard you work or how good you are.
You’ve done about 40 shows with Steppenwolf. What’s distinctive about performing there?
It’s truly where my roots are. It’s always my goal to get back to Chicago as often as I can. That’s the place where I discovered I would be able to make a living doing acting. I don’t know if I would’ve done that with any other group of people or in any other city. I don’t think it would’ve played out the same way. So I feel beholden to Chicago and the actors who are there—and to the Steppenwolf ticket buyers, who have always been so supportive of our hits and misses.
Sounds like this show will be a bit different from your most recent stage experience, starring opposite Bruce Willis in Misery on Broadway.
Despite the size of the house or the publicity, the work you put in is no different at all. I’m still trying to give 150 percent all through rehearsal and for every show. To play to a packed Broadway house with 1,100 seats is a rush. But it’s a different kind of rush to play in a space where you’re three feet away from the front row—well, from the back row sometimes.