“Every time I come back here, I feel like myself,” says Nora Dunn, a native Chicagoan, who spent much of the 1980s playing characters like the big-haired, lounge-singing Liz Sweeney on Saturday Night Live. When she left SNL in 1990, Dunn moved to L.A., and racked up roles in TV shows such as Entourage.

But in the summer of 2007, the comedienne moved back to Chicago. “I didn’t want my life to pass without ever going home,” she says. “I can still do movies and go to auditions.” (One project she’s been working on lately is Pineapple Express, produced by Hollywood wunderkind Judd Apatow and starring Seth Rogen, set to be released in the summer.)

Dunn’s homecoming has offered her a chance to do something different: work in the theatre. In February, she makes her full-length directorial debut with the dark comedy Augusta at American Theater Company. “I had just moved back and I ran into [ATC ensemble member] John Möhrlein. He asked me what I was going to do here, and I said, ‘I might want to find something to direct.’ A light bulb went off over his head.”

Written by Richard Dresser, Augusta chronicles the schemes and battles within a housekeeping service. “It’s a very smartly written, fast-paced look at how corporate business strategy affects the working class,” says P. J. Paparelli, ATC’s artistic director. “Nora grew up working class, knows Chicago, and loves the theatre. We’re clearly in good hands.”

Over a glass of wine at the cozy Enoteca Roma in Wicker Park, Dunn talks about her reacclimation to Midwestern weather, as well as what she has determined as the local comedy aesthetic. “Chicago humor is about the refrigerator repairman who stoops over and you can see the crack in his butt,” says the West Side native, who grew up listening to Nichols and May records and studied painting at the Art Institute of Chicago. “When Dan Aykroyd did that on Saturday Night Live, that was Midwestern humor. It’s about the characters from
your neighborhood.”

One character whom Dunn doesn’t plan on reenacting anytime soon is Liz Sweeney, despite Internet rumors that she and SNL compatriot Jan Hooks will revive the act. “That’s a fantasy,” says Dunn. “Liz Sweeney got married and divorced and kept her husband’s first name, which is Todd, so she’s Liz Sweeney-Todd. She’s playing the continental breakfast circuit now.”

Photograph: Lisa Predko