Can’t go home again? That old adage apparently doesn’t apply to actors who started in Chicago theater before going on to Hollywood success. In the past six months alone, Windy City auds have seen the return of an impressive ensemble of well-known big- and smallscreen performers, among them John Mahoney (in Pinter’s “The Birthday Party”), William Petersen (drama “Slowgirl”), Michael Shannon (Sam Shepard’s “Simpatico”) and Joan Allen (“The Wheel”).
Add to that list other recent returnees including David Schwimmer (a co-founder of Chi’s Lookingglass Theater who helmed Keith Huff’s “Big Lake, Big City” over the summer), Laurie Metcalf and Kevin Anderson (Steppenwolf players who have appeared in shows including “Detroit”), and even early-career native Chicagoans like Lucas Neff (a star of Fox’s “Raising Hope,” who saw his first play produced by a small local company during his hiatus) and Nelsan Ellis (“True Blood,” who inaugurated a new Chicago theater company by directing a Katori Hall play), and you’ve got a slew of Hollywood names juggling screen demands in order to visit their kind of town.
Take Shannon, whose career is in rapid ascent with his part in the film in “Man of Steel” and a regular role on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.” The actor says he feels tethered to his roots in Chicago theater, where he became known for performances in early plays by Tracy Letts, and helped found the Red Orchid Theater.
The run of “Simpatico” had to be changed to accommodate his obligations to publicize “Man of Steel,” and he worked with “Boardwalk Empire” producers to schedule filming around the play, flying back for brief visits to New York, where the show is shot. “Red Orchid’s this little theater I’ve invested 20 years of my life in,” Shannon says.
Petersen has done four plays in Chi since he exited “CSI.”
“One reason I left the show is because it had been so long since I’d been able to do a play,” he says. He’s taken on dark, challenging roles, including a pedophile in David Harrower’s “Blackbird,” and he’ll reprise his recent turn in “Slowgirl” at the Geffen in Los Angeles. Although he still keeps his hand in TV, he has a condo in Chicago.
Mahoney, meanwhile, never left the Windy City, in his estimation. “I spent 10 years living out of a hotel for ‘Frasier,’ ” he says.
At 73, he still does the occasional TV gig — he’ll return as Betty White’s boyfriend in sitcom “Hot in Cleveland” — but to hear him tell it, he turns down smallscreen work to act in world premiere plays like “Better Late” and “The Outgoing Tide” at Chicago’s Northlight.
Meanwhile, Allen — who rose to prominence in stage perfs in “Burn This” and “The Heidi Chronicles” — returned to Steppenwolf for the first time in 22 years in “The Wheel.” “On opening night, people stood up and I actually began to recognize faces,” she recalls.
Allen and Petersen, who were young performers when the Steppenwolf started in a suburban church basement in 1974, talk about that time as if it were Paris in the 1920s. “I’ve gotten old enough to appreciate what that was,” says Petersen, “and that I’ve gotten better.”
The promise of star billing certainly isn’t what pulls them back: Allen, who is onstage throughout “The Wheel” and plays opposite two child actors who barely speak, is listed on posters as “featured” rather than “starring.” That said, it’s hardly surprising the names draw in audiences beyond the usual subscribers.
“Simpatico” turned people away every night even after they waited in line for an hour or two, and you sometimes hear legiters refer to “the Mahoney factor,” the anticipated increase in sales that comes with his appearances.
But it’s clear these thesps make the return to Chicago for love, not money. “By the time you buy the cast and crew a round of drinks,” says Petersen, “you’re basically doing it for free.”