In Amy Herzog's "Belleville" at the Steppenwolf Theatre, Kate Arrington plays a troubled young woman named Abby who is married to a creep. At Abby's low point, she is literally forced to beg her suddenly terrifying husband for her own phone in order to call her dad. In that moment — I believe the line is nothing more than "Please give me my phone" — Arrington seems to have descended to a place of such vulnerability, you feel this swell of nurturing empathy and, luckily for the playwright, director and Steppenwolf, you are suddenly struck with the truth that we are never more at risk than with the people we love the most.
Watching Arrington melt down, with total veracity, to that childlike place of desperation on Saturday night, I had a sudden flashback to 2006 and Robert Falls' audacious production of "King Lear." Therein, Arrington was playing Regan, one of the more evil characters ever to spill from Shakespeare's fertile imagination. There was much debate about various elements of Falls' production, but no question whatsoever that the director was compelled by the reckless, self-biting cruelty of Lear and his clan. In most productions of this tragedy, you have at least a moment or two of wondering how the ugly sisters Goneril and Regan got to be so darn twisted. But not in this show. Here, they were sexually obsessed chips off the old block. And Arrington was viciousness incarnate: cruel, sadistic, uncaring, selfish, relentless, nasty.
And yet here she was, seven years later, collapsing in a pool of need and confusion. Behold an actress with range.
Those are just the polarities. Arrington has also shown plenty of colors between, whether as the spectacularly restless Susie in Falls' "The Iceman Cometh" (which appears likely to be restaged in New York next year), a twitchy, recovering addict in Lisa D'Amour's "Detroit" (perhaps my favorite Arrington performance, although "Belleville" comes close), a wound-tight regional manager in Bruce Norris' "A Parallelogram" (one begins to see that restlessness is an Arrington specialty), an aviatrix in Eric Simonson's "Fake," an earthy woman in Richard Greenberg's "The Well-Appointed Room," a breathy stockyard heiress in Greenberg's "The Violet Hour," or an Eastern European woman in Norris' "The Pain and the Itch," to whom there is much more than at first we think.
It is quite a suite of work.
Arrington lives in New York with her partner, actor Michael Shannon, who is appearing in "Simpatico" at A Red Orchid Theatre, and her 5-year-old daughter. But with the notable exception of "Grace" this past fall on Broadway (she played an entrepreneurial but restless Christian woman opposite her real-life partner, another formidable performance), most of her work has been done in Chicago, clearly her creative home. Even here, though, she has never quite had the attention she deserves, floating along in the celebrity-free ensemble tradition as so many Chicago actors do.
But "Belleville," which would be bereft without her, is another piece in what's now a wall of evidence of the Arrington chops. So what it is about her?
For one thing, she is a poster child for what those voice teachers like to call the freeing of the natural voice, capable of great, deep howls of either pain or aggression and, at the other end of her instrument, plaintive cries for help. Most actors mostly stay in the middle of that range; Arrington prefers the extremities. You never miss a single line she speaks. You could imagine her playing "Medea."
And yet Arrington, who grew up in North Carolina and graduated from Northwestern University, rarely delivers a line in a single, cohesive breathe. More often than not, her delivery is halting, reflecting uncertainty and insecurity as her characters often demand. Her creations often start out determined to talk in one direction, then stop, then start again, then go off in another way altogether, and then seem to worry about why they made that particular choice and contemplate something different again. She is a glamorous, sexy, upfront, go-to-the-wall-as-required woman, which perhaps accounts for some of the ways she has been cast, but she does not carry her beauty easily or naturally, say in the Gwyneth Paltrow mode. Her good looks seem always to exact a certain cost.
Another formidable Arrington asset is her unusual ability to play across class lines, which is not as common as you might think. You can believe her as a woman of privilege (as is the case in "Belleville") and you can believe her as a woman one step away from economic ruin. Her Abby in "Belleville" and her Sharon in "Detroit" were rooted in very different backgrounds, yet Arrington can capture the childish joys and utter distress of either with equal veracity.
Some fine actors offer intimate relationships to their audiences. There is something about Arrington that remains unknowable on a stage, something that puts you slightly on edge. That innate, omnipresent quality of restlessness means that the women she builds can easily go off in all kinds of different directions. You never quite know where they might travel at any given moment, which is why it dawned on me Saturday that Arrington has perked up every scene she has been a part of in Chicago for a decade or more. She is always, as they say, in the moment.
This, perhaps, is an interesting moment for Arrington, who is 38, although she easily can play years younger. Her husband's career, obviously, is doing spectacularly well, which must have its pluses and minuses for a two-actor family, and she's at a point where the roles she will be offered will start to change.
That big, career-making role, especially in New York, is still ahead. But it will come.