Martha Lavey, a pivotal force in Chicago theater, has died at 60

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Martha Lavey, the late actress and artistic director of Steppenwolf Theatre, will be memorialized by Steppenwolf Theatre . (Photo: Joel Moorman)

Martha Lavey, the tireless and innovative artistic director of Steppenwolf Theatre from 1995 to 2014, has died in hospice care at Illinois Masonic Hospital this afternoon, after suffering her second major stroke in two years. She was 60.

The first time I saw Martha Lavey on stage was in 1987 when she starred in the Steppenwolf Theatre production of Wallace Shawn’s incendiary play, “Aunt Dan and Lemon.” She played the sickly, reclusive young woman nicknamed Lemon whose childhood memories involved a particularly charismatic, right-wing professor, Aunt Dan, whose chilling ideas about Nazism and other things took root in her with startling force.

About her performance I wrote: “The exquisitely beautiful Lavey, with her flawless, hypnotic diction and dreamy grace, captures the girl’s ghostly quality — turning her into a kind of cracked porcelain doll.”

Martha Lavey in the 1987 Steppenwolf Theatre production of Wallace Shawn’s “Aunt Dan and Lemon.” | Photo courtesy of Steppenwolf Theatre

Martha Lavey in the 1987 Steppenwolf Theatre production of Wallace Shawn’s “Aunt Dan and Lemon.” | Photo courtesy of Steppenwolf Theatre

The last time I saw Lavey on stage was at The Poetry Center, in the summer of 2014, when she read a piece written specifically for her by artist-actor-writer Tony Fitzpatrick. It was drawn from his poetic meditations on birds, and he had long envisioned Lavey as “the last existing carrier pigeon.” She gave a remarkable performance.

The opening lines spoken by Lavey went like this: “I was the only one of my kind, for a great many years. I never once saw another like me — not even my Mother — you see, I was raised from an egg — in an incubator…  at the Cincinnati Zoo. In the Birdhouse there were other birds — Honeycreepers, Fairy bluebirds, Mynah’s… they never shut up… thrushes, finches… none of them were as rare… or as popular as me. I was adored. People looked through the glass with a look of reverence. You see — I was a Passenger Pigeon… the last one on earth.”

Frank Galati, another pioneering force on the Chicago theater scene, and a member of the Steppenwolf ensemble since 1985, first encountered Lavey when she was an undergraduate in his classes at Northwestern University. They would go on to become great friends and professional colleagues.

“I still vividly remember Martha’s final performance in my directing class,” said Galati. “She performed the entire Nausicaa section from James Joyce’s novel, ‘Ulysses’ [in which a young woman contemplates love, marriage and femininity]. And her husband at the time, a self-destructive man who she took great care of, devised what was an elaborate technological apparatus for that period. So we all had earplugs and listened to Martha murmur the words as she almost seemed to dance her way through the text. It made a stunning impression, as did she, with her shock of white hair that looked like a lightning bolt.”

Galati went on: “In addition to her remarkable physical beauty — to the pure, luminous symmetry of her form and face, and her wonderfully lively eyes — there was her strong, distinctive wide-ranging voice. And then there was the knockout punch — her intellect, and her stunning capacity for analysis, and her drive to understand  things on the deepest level.”

In a prepared statement, Steppenwolf co-founder Jeff Perry said of Lavey: “Martha always possessed a calm, indefatigable ferocity the like of which remains singularly majestic in my experience. In Martha, an alchemy of fierce intelligence, fearlessness, humor, objectivity, stubbornness and curiosity, beautifully coexisted. This alchemy fed a passionate point of view formed through decades of exploration via acting, voluminous reading and a deliciously wide range of theater going.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement that the city “owes a debt of gratitude” to Lavey. “While leading one of the most acclaimed theater companies in the world for more than 20 years, she helped put Chicago theater — and the gritty, gutsy Chicago-style theater for which we’re known — on the map,” he wrote. “Martha will forever be remembered as one of the most important figures in the history of Chicago theater.”

Born into a large Catholic family in Lawrence, Kansas, (she would later become a devout Buddhist), Lavey earned her doctorate degree in Performance Studies from Northwestern University, was later a recipient of an Alumni Merit Award from that school, and served as a member of the National Advisory Council for the School of Communication at the university. She became a Steppenwolf ensemble member in 1993, and performed in more than 30 of its productions including “The March,” “Middletown,” “Endgame,” “Up,” “Good Boys and True,” “Love-Lies-Bleeding” “Lost Land,” “I Never Sang for My Father,” “The Memory of Water,” “Supple in Combat,” “Time of My Life,” “Clockwork Orange,” “Talking Heads,” “SLAVS!,” “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” and “Love Letters.”

Martha Lavey with John Mahoney in the Steppenwolf Theatre production of “Supple in Combat.” | Photo: Courtesy of Steppenwolf Theatre

Martha Lavey with John Mahoney in the Steppenwolf Theatre production of “Supple in Combat.” | Photo: Courtesy of Steppenwolf Theatre

Elsewhere in Chicago Lavey performed at the Victory Gardens, Northlight and Remains theaters. Her 1990 performance in a Goodman Theatre production of Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” directed by Galati, prompted New York Times critic Frank Rich to write: “If there is one performance that dominates the production, it is Ms. Lavey’s tremendously affecting Hermione. To testify in the trial scene, she rises from her prison through a trapdoor in a gray smock and bare feet, then argues against her husband’s false accusations. As she does so, Ms. Lavey stands completely still, her arms dangling at her side, her raven hair streaming down her back, her eyes glassy with grief but never pleading. She offers the simple dignity of a true martyr, not the melodramatic piety of the self-martyred.”

Under her leadership of Steppenwolf (Lavey was the first woman to lead that notoriously male-dominated theatrical tribe), the company became a national leader in producing new plays and commissioning playwrights, doubled the size of its ensemble, diversified its base of artists, added two performance spaces, expanded and deepened its partnerships in public schools and the community, and created Steppenwolf for Young Adults.

Lavey oversaw the production of hundreds of plays, and transferred dozens of Steppenwolf productions to Broadway and abroad, gaining national and international recognition for the company and Chicago as a vital theater destination. During her tenure, Steppenwolf was awarded the National Medal of the Arts, as well as the Illinois Arts Legend Award, Equity Special Award and nine of the company’s 12 Tony Awards.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and actor Tracy Letts observed: “I think the changes and improvements Martha made to our theater — well, they’re monumental. In fact, what she’s done for Chicago theater is monumental. And I can also say, just personally, she’s been huge in my life. My God! I went to her with ‘August: Osage County’ before I had written it — and told her I have a three-act, three-and-a-half hour play, with 13 characters in it, and there’s a three-story set — and she said, ‘Great! Go write it. We’ll do it.’ Her influence on my life, both personally and professionally, has been enormous. There’s no way to encapsulate it in just a sentence or two.”

Martha Lavey, artistic director of Steppenwolf Theatre, wears the 1998 National Medal of Arts Award presented to the theater by President Clinton during a ceremony at the White House. | AP Photo/Doug Mills

Martha Lavey, artistic director of Steppenwolf Theatre, wears the 1998 National Medal of Arts Award presented to the theater by President Clinton during a ceremony at the White House. | AP Photo/Doug Mills

In a statement released Tuesday, Steppenwolf artistic director Anna Shapiro and executive director David Schmitz noted: “As faithful friends, audience members, donors, staff, artists, mentees and members of the Steppenwolf community, we were all indelibly impacted by Martha’s passion, commitment, vision and unmatched intellect. Martha cared deeply for each and every one of us — no matter our relationship to her or the theatre. She will be dearly missed.”

Lavey made it her mission to see productions at scores of the city’s smaller storefront theaters and, in what was in many ways one of her most important innovations, she oversaw the conception and programming for Steppenwolf’s Garage Theater, the intimate, flexible space established in 1998 that, through an annual Garage Rep series begun in 2010, provided a platform for these companies to be seen under the Steppenwolf umbrella.

“Martha was incredibly generous and took a big risk with me and my little company when she produced ‘She Kills Monsters’ in the Garage in 2013,” said director Scott Weinstein. “She was always so positive and encouraging, and gave us such insightful feedback.The Garage Rep was her brainchild, and it really gave lots of companies a big boost.”

Lavey also fostered the development of the Steppenwolf for Young Adults program, an innovative and influential series for teens and their families. She helped establish both The School at Steppenwolf, which has become an acclaimed training residency based in ensemble traditions, and the Professional Leadership Program for emerging arts managers and designers. And her creation of The First Look Rep of New Work, for plays in development, showcased the work of many writers, director and actors.

Actress-director Amy Morton, also a longtime Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member, still recalls meeting Lavey for the first time.

“It was the mid 1980s, and I stopped by an upstairs rehearsal room at the company’s old home at 2748 N. Halsted and saw what looked like the most exotic person I’d seen in my life — with that hair and those eyes,” said Morton. “I got to know her better when we worked at Remains. As an actress she just had an unbelievable directness — honest, straightforward, no frills, which was really the essence of who she was. And I know she planned to come back to the stage after she was no longer artistic director.”

“Martha had no interest in directing,” Morton said. “But I was not at all surprised when she became the head of Steppenwolf, because her brain was so big she needed to do something more than just waiting around to act, which is what so many actors must do. It was just an obvious fit. And she was an amazing ego booster for many of us; you never felt better than when she championed you. Some of us called her ‘Martha the Spartan” because she was the most disciplined person, about everything in her life, that I have ever known. And I think she was attracted to Buddhism because acceptance was a big goal for her in her life.”

As Fitzpatrick observed: “Martha was a ferocious mentor, and I am eternally grateful to her for giving me an acting career and telling me that the theater is not just about plays, but can be many forms of storytelling. I also am completely heartbroken about losing her.”

Lavey was twice named one of the “100 Most Powerful People” by Chicago magazine, was selected in 2004 as one of the city’s “10 Most Powerful Women in the Arts” by the Chicago Sun-Times and was awarded the title of  “2010 Chicagoan of the Year” by the Chicago Tribune. In May 2016 she received an honor from the City of Chicago for her two decades of service as artistic director. The recipient of the Sarah Siddons Award, Lavey also served on grants panels for the National Endowment for the Arts, The Theatre Communications Group, Three Arts Club, USA Artists and the City Arts panel of Chicago. Earlier this year she was presented with Rivendell Theatre’s WREN Award, in recognition of “her extraordinary work advocating for women theater artists in Chicago.”

Galati recalled that he and BJ Jones, artistic director of Northlight Theatre, took Lavey to lunch last year and that “She still had that vitality. And even though her language was reduced, she participated in the conversation with these little beads of thought that were like pearls.”

Lavey is survived by her parents, Robert and Patricia Lavey, as well as by her sister Michele Dragisity, (of Bloomfield Hills, MI); and five brothers — Kevin Lavey (Baltimore, MD); Matt Lavey (West Babylon, NY); John Lavey (St. Louis, MO); Patrick Lavey (Newton, MA) and Jim Lavey (Oakton, VA.)

Services will be held near Lavey’s parents’ home in Vienna, Virginia, at St. Mark Catholic Church. A memorial to celebrate her life and and legacy will be held at the theater at a future date.

Martha Lavey in the Steppenwolf Theatre production of “I Never Sang for My Father.” | Photo: Courtesy of Steppenwolf Theatre

Martha Lavey in the Steppenwolf Theatre production of “I Never Sang for My Father.” | Photo: Courtesy of Steppenwolf Theatre

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