It was mid-October and she was due to leave in a week for New York, where she would reprise her acclaimed performance as Violet Weston, the pill-addicted, cancer-stricken monster of a mother at the heart of "August: Osage County." The play, by actor-playwright Tracy Letts, had been the hottest ticket of the summer at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, and now Dunagan and most of the large cast were getting ready to take the play to the Big Apple.
"I don't have anything positive to say about this," said a somber Dunagan, taking a break from sorting through clothes and cleaning out desk drawers. "It's a duty. We need to get this play seen. And we need to get this play seen so the word gets out about Chicago theater."
She was hardly alone in her views. Taken as a whole, the cast's response to the Broadway offer could be summed up as, "Do we have to?"
"The bulk of the cast is over 40, so picking up and moving isn't what it was in our 20s," said Amy Morton, who plays Barbara, Violet's oldest daughter and chief antagonist. "It's a much more complicated affair."
Beyond the disruptions and the time spent away from spouses, children and familiar surroundings, the actors were reflecting a common attitude among members of Chicago's diverse, innovative and hometown-proud theater community. Sure, this thinking goes, Broadway was once the summit of American theater, but these days, it's just another Times Square tourist trap, the domain of overblown musicals and vanity projects for Hollywood stars who want to show that they can memorize more than one line at a time.
You want real theater? You want exciting productions of new works, like "August," and bold reimaginings of classics? You want plays in every variety of setting, from gilded palaces to grungy storefronts? You want acting that comes from the heart and the gut as well as from the brain? Come to Chicago.
For that matter, what would make a group of hard-headed producers with a proven Broadway track record think they could turn a profit by transporting some 13 actors-none of them bankable, bold-faced names-to New York to present a dark play about a family with almost every known dysfunction? A play so long it has two intermissions?
"It's not a rational project," David Hawkanson, the executive director of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, says dryly.
And yet, despite all the travails of putting on a Broadway show, including a curveball stagehands strike that shut down the play for 19 days while it was in previews, "August: Osage County" has scored a triumphant bull's-eye on Broadway. It is a critical hit, with all the attendant predictions of Tony awards for the cast and a Pulitzer Prize for Letts. It is a financial success, standing up to competition from new plays by such brand-name playwrights as David Mamet, Tom Stoppard, Conor McPherson and Aaron Sorkin. And it is serving as a calling card to reintroduce American theater-goers to the 33-year-old Steppenwolf company, by now a venerable institution that, of all things, does not want to be thought of as a venerable institution.
"As lucky as we've been at Steppenwolf over the years, there's never been such a genuine expression of what Steppenwolf Theatre is in an original work by one of our company members," says cast member Jeff Perry, who founded the company with Gary Sinise and Terry Kinney in 1975, when they were barely out of college.
From its first productions at a Catholic school in Highland Park, Steppenwolf has been dedicated to the idea of ensemble acting, giving both big and small roles the same care and attention that other companies focus on one or two star characters. Over the years, the company has produced stars who have gone on to movie and TV careers, including Sinise, John Malkovich and Joan Allen, but that was a byproduct of the group's choice of gritty material, which showed off the young performers' emotionally charged acting.
"August: Osage County," set in Pawhuska, the county seat of Osage County, Okla., revolves around the mother-daughter battle between Violet and Barbara, but it fits comfortably into the Steppenwolf's ensemble tradition. Letts, who grew up in Oklahoma and has been an ensemble member since 2002, provides every character with at least one moment to shine, and there are many points when the seamless interplay between the actors, many of whom have worked together for decades, is crucial to achieving the simultaneous feats of making the audience laugh out loud and squirm in their seats.
And that's one of the most surprising aspects of this dark play: its humor. Besides tearing each other apart, Letts' characters get off plenty of sharp observations. Early on, Barbara corrects her husband, Bill, who has referred to Oklahoma as part of the Midwest. " Michigan is the Midwest, God knows why," she says. "This is the Plains: a state of mind, right, some spiritual affliction, like the Blues."
The play opened in July to rave reviews from the Tribune's Chris Jones and other Chicago critics. "Letts has penned a major, not-to-be-missed new American work that eulogizes the perversely nurturing dysfunction of family life on the Plains," Jones wrote. "This remarkable show . . . powerfully energizes and centers the acting ensemble."
New York's theater world was soon buzzing about the play, thanks to Letts' New York agent, Ron Gwiazda, who sent copies of the script to several producers. By the end of the play's run in August, the company had multiple offers to take "August" east.
Although watching a family claw itself to pieces for three hours is not normal Broadway fare, "August" had a couple of factors in its favor. Two of Letts' earlier plays, "Killer Joe" and "Bug," had been off-Broadway hits, and another, "The Man from Nebraska," had been a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Maybe he wasn't famous, but he was hardly an unknown quantity in the theater world.
Also, the 2007-2008 Broadway lineup was shaping up as an unusual season, not of endless musicals but of serious straight plays. New works were scheduled by Mamet, Stoppard and Irish playwright McPherson, and one of Harold Pinter's best-known plays, "The Homecoming," was being revived.