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Plays During Wartime

The Dresser is set during the Nazi Blitz of England and joins a long Steppenwolf tradition of plays that are set during wartime. In that same tradition, the action of each of these plays focuses on the personal drama against the backdrop of world–changing events (not surprising for an actor’s theater). Backstage asked artistic intern Patrick King to put together a list of some of the productions that could be grouped under the heading “Steppenwolf Goes to War.”

by C.P. Taylor, directed by ensemble member Terry Kinney, 1982

Taking place during World War II, And A Nightingale Sang is concerned with those who stay behind in the English countryside. The Stott family endures the air raid sirens and comings and goings of the soldiers in this bittersweet narrative, as the Stott sisters take up with two soldiers – one a philanderer, one with a secret that keeps him at arm’s length. As the war draws to a close, however, a new spark of hope and light appears, with a promise of healing ahead – a final moment captured indelibly for many who saw the original production as ensemble member Joan Allen’s face lit up as she set forth on her lame leg and began to dance.

“When we went out into the street…Everything was lit up…The whole world was lit…There was something burning really bright in the distance…I think it was the flares on the Eldon statue.”

by John DiFusco, directed by ensemble member Gary Sinise, 1984

Written by an ensemble of actors who served in Vietnam, Tracers explores their military training and combat, but is primarily concerned with the rigors of companionship and loyalty within a platoon of soldiers. The play, more directly connected to the battlefield than any other play produced at Steppenwolf, finds the horror and solace within relationships among men at war, and the ties that link them to the battles, long after the guns go silent. The play’s original director, John DiFusco, had turned down a multitude of offers to reproduce the play, feeling strongly that it should only be performed by Vietnam veterans. Gary Sinise convinced him that Steppenwolf had what it took to stage the play. Of the cast at Steppenwolf, only one member (Greg Williams) was a vet, but by pushing the actors through a rigorous period of closed rehearsals, interviewing hundreds of veterans and simulating boot camp training, the production achieved a reality that met DiFusco’s high expectations.

“A very young Thai girl sat next to me. I started to speak to her, but nothing came. ‘What’s bothering you?’ she asked. I said, ‘I fought in the Vietnam War.’ She smiled and said, ‘Don’t think too much. It will make you depressed.’ I said, ‘I keep thinking about killing people.’ She brushed my cheek with her fingertips and she whispered a sweet and gentle truth: ‘The war is over. It’s time to go home.’”

by Lee Blessing, directed by ensemble member Randall Arney, 1989

In Switzerland, high in the mountains and removed from the realities of the Cold War, a United States arms reduction negotiator and his Soviet counterpart engage in a delicate series of negotiations outside of official channels. As the American presses to confront the issues at hand, the Russian forces their conversations through detours and trivialities before desperately arguing that the only joy possible for these two men comes through a willful abandonment of reality, escaping into nature and reveling in the simplicities of frivolous conversation. Brought to Steppenwolf by ensemble member Robert Breuler, who had played an active role in the play’s development, this production was marked by Breuler’s highly acclaimed portrayal as the Russian negotiator, matched with an equally charged performance from ensemble member Rick Snyder.
“Receptions, dinner parties – that’s where it happens. I hear all those serious words: ‘lasers,’ ‘mega–deaths,’ ‘acceptable losses’...Do you know what I am dying to hear an American talk about? Mickey Mouse. Cowboys. How to make a banjo...Minnie Mouse. Anything that is not serious.”

by Bertolt Brecht, directed by ensemble member Eric Simonson, 2001

In the 1600s, in Central Europe, the Thirty Years War rages…and Mother Courage tries to make a little money on the deal. Bertolt Brecht’s epic black comedy follows a peasant woman as she sells, steals and haggles her way across the battlefield of pre–Modern Europe, switching sides when it’s convenient to do so, lugging a cart of wares behind her with her three children in it. As the war progresses, her children fall prey to violence one by one, until at the play’s close, Courage is left to pull her own cart in vain pursuit of the army. Steppenwolf’s production, opening a week after 9/11, set the tale in what the Wall Street Journal described as “a gray, ruined civilization, uncomfortably reminiscent of the heap of concrete dust and twisted metal in downtown Manhattan,” and the aftershocks of that tragedy amplified the pain of the play’s most deeply felt moments.

“Of course, as with all good things, it’s hard to get a proper war started. Once it starts, of course, there’s no stopping it, thank God. But at the beginning…well, people are always frightened of the new.”

by Bruce Norris, directed by associate artist Anna D. Shapiro, 2002

Nobody is left unscarred by the forces of war in Bruce Norris’s dark comedy, including a Vietnam vet who shot his hand off to escape the war; a widow, played by ensemble member
Laurie Metcalf in an electrifying performance, who turns to alcohol in the wake of her husband’s death in combat; and her son who vents his rage and confusion through novelty shop gags and obscene language. By the play’s end, dark secrets are brought to light, sparking a tragedy that resonates with the violence and pain of the war that happens in the hearts at home, as well as an ocean away.

“Things get said in the heat of a moment and then, of course, they can’t be unsaid. Because of pain. Striking out with words to relieve one’s pain. But of course the pain isn’t lessened, it is merely redistributed.”