Laurie Metcalf: You Can Come Home Again

By Conners, Thomas | American Theatre, October 1994 | Go to article overview

Laurie Metcalf: You Can Come Home Again


Conners, Thomas, American Theatre


Laurie Metcalf is hunkered down behind a deli sandwich wet with green peppers, a panicked look in her eyes. It's clear she isn't comfortable giving interviews. This picture doesn't quite fit the image of the Steppenwolf actor, known for her fearless performances. Nor does it jibe with what one expects of a woman who's earned an Emmy nomination holding her own against the larger-than-life Roseanne on the eponymous ABC sit-com.

But as Metcalf suggests herself, expectations aren't much to put stock in. "We came out of college to do four one-acts in a church basement for the summer," she notes, recalling the genesis of Chicago's best-known acting company. "If you had told any one of us at that time that we'd still be coming back 20 years later to do plays with the same group of people, no one would have believed it."

Steppenwolf Theatre Company has come a long way since that summer of '74. It's a national institution now, with an international reputation. And although Thomas Wolfe may have been right, Metcalf, like other members who've found fame in New York or L.A., continues to come "home" again and again. One reason Metcalf returns is the very reason those early years were so rewarding: the opportunity to tackle challenging roles that don't come down the pike every day--Hamlet in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Darlene in Balm in Gilead, Mom in True West. "These days," says Metcalf, "I don't have much time, so when I choose to do a play, I'm going to do it here."

Doing it here this past summer meant playing two roles in Libra, John Malkovich's adaptation of novelist Don Delillo's stunningly rendered speculation on the making of Lee Harvey Oswald and his part in fracturing the fairy tale of Camelot. Playing mother Marguerite to Alexis Arquette's Lee, she wore a gray wig and a dowdy dress, and kept her legs pressed primly together. As crazed, gay conspirator David Ferrie--tricked out in a bad red rug (Ferrie suffered from a disease that decimated all of his body hair) and a south-of-the-border sports shirt, she paced with her torso at a 45-degree angle.

Metcalf invested both characters with a vocal tension to match their respective lunacies--Marguerite's occasioned by her life as an overwhelmed single mother, and Ferrie's born of dark streets and back-woods airstrips, cheap rooms and sick obsessions (with cancer, for one). Delivering Marguerite's oddly inflected defense of her son, Metcalf sputtered until her face fell in slack-jawed, deer-in-the-head-lights helplessness. …

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