photograph: courtesy of steppenwolf theatre 

It's been 22 years and three Oscar nominations since Steppenwolf ensemble member Joan Allen trod the boards of the venerable Lincoln Park stage.

Allen, who joined at John Malkovich's request in 1977, is back with a vengeance, playing the a reluctant warrior with an unbreakable, unexpected maternal streak in Zinnie Harris's time-tripping, war-torn fable The Wheel.

Chicago caught up with Allen between shows to discuss her long absence—and the show that brought her back.

The last play you did at Steppenwolf was Earthly Possessions in 1991. Why the decades-long gap between shows?

I actually got a little burned out on theatre by the early 1990s. I'd done some long-running shows like The Heidi Chronicles, Burn This, and, to be honest, I was spent. Then I became a mother in 1994. I'm based in New York, and I just couldn't imagine coming to Chicago for a three-month run and not being able to kiss my daughter good night every night. Now she's 19, so I felt like I was more freed up.

I did a few readings last winter in New York that [Steppenwolf Artistic Director] Martha Lavey set up, thinking, ‘OK, I'll just stick my toe back in the water with some buddies and see what it's like.’ It was an amazing reconnection. [Director] Tina Landau came to one of the readings and she had such an intelligence and joie de vivre. I was so taken with her. I was like, ‘I want this person to be my boss.’

The Wheel is pretty epic. As Beatriz, you're on stage the entire time, muscling your way through war zones, gunfire, bombings, while trying to protect two children you've taken charge of. Did your maternal instincts play a role in drawing you to this particular piece?

I absolutely could not have done this play before raising my daughter. I've lived through some very challenging times personally as a mother and those experiences helped me connect with this role. The thing about Beatriz is that she just keeps trying. She's continually forward thinking, constantly asking, ‘OK, this is a horrible situation, how can I make it work?’ She doesn't succumb. She doesn't wallow. She just keeps picking up the bag and running with it. She's a take-the-bull-by-the-horns kind of woman.

Was it scary, jumping into a major part like this?

Scary? No. Open up a newspaper. That's scary. It's a play and it's important, but it's nothing to be scared of.

There've been so many changes at Steppenwolf since you became a member in 1977. The church basement you started in is now a multi-million dollar theatre complex, the ensemble has at least tripled in size. Are the changes jarring to you?

Not exactly jarring. More intensely moving. On the first day of rehearsal, the whole staff was there – maybe 80, 90 people. And we're all going around introducing ourselves. About half way through, I started crying. I was looking around at this amazing facility, thinking about the handful of people in the church basement where we started and thinking about what Steppenwolf has turned into. It was so emotional. I remember one of our earliest reviews said the set had obviously "run into the tens of dollars." And now look at what we have. From the smallest beginnings, such extraordinary things can happen.

You turned 56 in August. Is it tougher finding good roles, now that you're past the ingénue phase?

I suppose it gets a little harder, but for me, I don't have the need to be working constantly. I'm not one of those people who is always worried about what's going to happen next. There are other things in life. My mother is 96, and I've been able to spend a lot of time with her, which I appreciate so much. One of the most valuable things my parents gave me is my work ethic. My mom was born in 1917 and grew up with no running water and an outhouse. A big deal was taking a horse and buggy into town on Saturday night.

What's up for you next?

Before The Wheel, I finished filming A Good Marriage. It's based on a Stephen King short story. I'm the female lead, a woman who finds out her husband is a serial killer after 25 years of marriage.

Will it be another two decades before we see you on stage here again?

I tend to doubt it will be that long. Theatre is very much back on my radar. It's taken me back to the beginning. It's like riding a bicycle. You don't forget. I feel so at home on the stage. It feels like yes, this I know how to do.

The Wheel runs through Nov. 10 at the Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted. Tickets are $50—$70. For more information visit