Laurie Metcalf, Joe Mantello join Samuel D. Hunter for Steppenwolf Theatre’s ‘Little Bear Ridge Road’

After a 14-year interval, Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member Laurie Metcalf is back in Chicago and ready to take the stage at the iconic Lincoln Park campus. Among the award-winning actor’s first orders of business upon arrival: getting a “deeply unfortunate” haircut.

“I walked in to the rehearsal room, and everybody started laughing,” Metcalf said of her coiffure for the world premiere of Obie-winning playwright Samuel D. Hunter’s drama “Little Bear Ridge Road.”

“I look ridiculous,” Metcalf said. “I look like I made a deeply unfortunate choice. But I’m fine walking around like this because it’s a choice my character would have made.”

Her character, Sarah, is a role that Hunter wrote for Metcalf. Also starring Micah Stock, Meighan Gerachis and John Drea, “Little Bear Ridge Road” runs through Aug. 4 in Steppenwolf’s downstairs theater.

‘Little Bear Ridge Road’

When: Through Aug. 4

Where: Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.

Tickets: $20-$168


Directed by Metcalf’s longtime collaborator Joe Mantello, “Little Bear” centers on Sarah and her estranged nephew Ethan (Stock). Set in a tiny Idaho town during the COVID-19 pandemic’s early days in 2020, the drama follows them as they try to settle the affairs of a recently deceased relative while coming to grips with their own troubled lives.

“It’s about legacy,” says Mantello, who first directed Metcalf in 2008, when she got her first Tony Award nomination, starring opposite Nathan Lane in David Mamet’s “November.”

“ ‘Little Bear’ is about the choices Sarah and Ethan have made and “whether what happens to them — how their lives play out — is inescapable, like fate or destiny, or whether they have agency in what happens,” Mantello said.

This is the sixth time Metcalf and Mantello have collaborated. After “November,” they teamed in 2011 in “The Other Place,” then in 2019 in “Hillary and Clinton,” which got Metcalf another Tony nomination. In 2020, they made it through nine preview performances for Broadway’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” before the pandemic closed the show. They again worked together last year in the horror-thriller “The Grey House.”

Laurie Metcalf (from left) and Micah Stock in Steppenwolf Theatre’s world premiere of “Little Bear Ridge Road.”

Michael Brosilow

Nominated six times, Metcalf has two Tony awards, one in 2017 for Lucas Hnath’s “A Doll’s House Part Two” and another in 2018 for Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women”; four Emmy Awards, three as a supporting actress in the 1988-97 sitcom “Roseanne,” the fourth for a featured role in the 2022 season of “Hacks,” and an Oscar nomination for 2017’s “Ladybird.” She’s currently in the “Roseanne” spinoff “The Conners.”

Mantello is probably best known for directing “Wicked.” He has won two Tony awards, having been nominated 8 times in 30 years, the wins for directing the drama “Take Me Out” in 2003 and, this year, for directing the musical “Assassins.”

“He can do drama, he can do musicals, he can do comedy,” Hunter said. “That kind of range in a director is just extraordinary.”

Mantello was just out of college when he first saw Metcalf perform.

“It was 1984, when ‘Balm in Gilead’ came to New York,” Mantello said of the legendary Steppenwolf production directed by John Malkovich and starring ensemble members including Metcalf, Malkovich, Francis Guinan, Gary Sinise, Joan Allen and John Mahoney.

“It’s always been about making decisions about what’s right for the project, going full tilt tearing into it and leaving everything on stage,” Laurie Metcalf says of Steppenwolf Theatre.

Jim Vondruska / Sun-Times

“It flew in the face of everything I thought I knew about being an actor,” Mantello said. “Here were these artists working in a style that I’d never seen, doing things that were irreverent and unique and shocking and just, well, jaw-dropping. I saw it three times. Laurie had a 20-minute monologue in the show — and she became the North Star of the kind of actor I wanted to work with.”

Metcalf’s awful hairdo can be seen as emblematic of the Steppenwolf style, which has almost been reduced to a shorthand — gritty, muscular, in-your-face.

“People called it rock ‘n’ roll,” Metcalf said of Steppenwolf’s aesthetic. “I don’t think we have an actual style per se, but, if I had to define it, I’d say it’s one where there’s no ego involved. By that, I mean we have no shame about doing whatever on stage. Bite the head off a chicken. Run around nude. Shave your head. Wear horrible fake teeth and ugly padding. It’s always been about making decisions about what’s right for the project, going full tilt tearing into it and leaving everything on stage.”

Hunter’s roots in Chicago theater date to 2013, when his breakout play “The Whale” made its Chicago premiere at the late, great Victory Gardens Theater, winning raves and multiple Jeff Awards. The drama — about a profoundly isolated, 600-pound English teacher whose life is upended by his estranged daughter — shares some superficial traits with “Little Bear Ridge Road.”

Joe Mantello is probably best known for directing “Wicked,” though he has had a prolific career.

Jim Vondruska / Sun-Times

Hunter set “The Whale” in Moscow, Idaho, where he grew up. “Little Bear” is set 30 minutes east of there in another tiny Idaho town. Both plays explore the lasting, devastating mental and physical impact of trauma. And each features two family members trying to navigate thorny, potentially ruinous circumstances lifetimes in the making.

“I’ve always been drawn to people who live on the periphery of American life, people who live near the losing end of the periphery,” Hunter said. “I get tired of the hero narrative — like suffering and effort leads to redemption and reward. That doesn’t always happen.

“In ‘Little Bear,’ Sarah and Ethan are the fulcrum of each other’s lives,” he said. “He’s sort of at the beginning of his. She’s nearing the end. They’re both stuck. And, because of the pandemic and this death in the family, they wind up stuck in the same place. The question becomes: How can they move on, get unstuck?”

Hunter hadn’t written “Little Bear” when he first met with Mantello and Metcalf.

“We read so many scripts and just couldn’t find an existing show we wanted to do,” Metcalf said.

Steppenwolf’s co-artistic directors Glenn Davis and Audrey Francis suggested they talk with Hunter.

“So, about a year ago, we all sat down in the lobby of the Signature Theatre [in New York],” Metcalf said. “We’d been fans of Sam’s work, but we’d never talked to him. After an hour, it basically came down to us asking if he’d write something for me to act in and Joe to direct.”

“It was like the heavens parted,” Hunter said. “Steppenwolf, Mantello and Metcalf? You don’t say no to an opportunity like that.”

“He can do drama, he can do musicals, he can do comedy,” Samuel D. Hunter says of Joe Mantello.

Jim Vondruska / Sun-Times

“I remember being a 10-year-old in Idaho, watching ‘Roseanne’ and thinking, ‘Wow, she’s really good,’ ” Hunter said. “Laurie Metcalf is the kind of actor you dream about being able to write for.”

He had a draft of “Little Bear” ready three months after that meeting at the Signature. He wrote much of it at his father’s Idaho home on Ridge Road east of Little Bear Creek.

“Sam’s plays are small in the sense that they have small casts, and they take place in confined spaces — but they’re huge emotionally,” Metcalf said. “And they’re funny. There’s a lot of humor in this show.

“I didn’t stay away for 12 years on purpose,” she said of her time away. “But theaters announce their seasons up to nine months before the show actually happens. It’s tough to commit that far in advance in this business.

“But with ‘Little Bear,’ the people were right. The timing was right. Once the three of us actually met, it all came together pretty quickly.”

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