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‘Funny, strong’ Steppenwolf actress Mariann Mayberry dies at 52

Mariann Mayberry performs in the 2012 Steppenwolf Theatre production of "Good People" by David Lindsay-Abaire. | Michael Brosilow/Steppenwolf Theatre

Mariann Mayberry, a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble since 1993, died Tuesday at age 52 after a long battle with cancer.

The actress, who appeared on Broadway in Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County,” left her mark on many stages in Chicago and beyond — most notably as Margaret, the struggling, working-class Boston woman in the 2012 Steppenwolf production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People.”

It was in “Good People” — particularly in an uncannily timely monologue about how a financially strapped single mother with a minimum-wage job got caught up in a cycle of pain and desperation, and was unable to get treatment for an infected tooth — that Mayberry struck gold. The actress connected with the role in a way that had far more to do with some deep inner knowledge than with technique, although Mayberry had plenty of that to spare.

Her singular ability to suggest toughness and vulnerability surfaced again in 2015 when she starred in Heidi Schreck’s play “Grand Concourse,” also at Steppenwolf, playing a nun who runs a soup kitchen in the Bronx.

Mariann Mayberry and Victor Almanzar in “Grand Concourse.” | Michael Brosilow/Steppenwolf Theatre
Mariann Mayberry and Victor Almanzar in “Grand Concourse.” | Michael Brosilow/Steppenwolf Theatre

“Mariann was our girl,” Steppenwolf artistic director Anna D. Shapiro said in a statement. “Funny, strong, unbelievably hardworking, with a quick smile that belied a complex and beautiful interior life, she was at the center of who this company is and has always been. It is impossible to imagine our theater — or this astonishingly cruel world — without her. We are devastated.”

Steppenwolf actor Ian Barford first met Mayberry in 1986 when she was a student at Illinois Wesleyan University and came to see a play he was in while at Illinois State.

“I’ve counted eight plays we did together over the years,” said Barford. “We played lovers, friends, siblings — the full spectrum — and I will never forget the remarkable ferocity of her work. . . . She was a very physically strong woman, and incredibly beautiful in the way she moved, with such power and dynamism. She had a bright kind of energy that came through her big blue eyes and incredible smile. On stage she could be sweet and delicate, and then she could rip your throat out. The range was astonishing.

“Her battle with cancer had many iterations over a period of years. But she was unbelievably resilient, and strong, and brave. And I never sensed from her that she believed she couldn’t beat it.”

Mayberry appeared in the Chicago world premiere of “August: Osage County,” and then went on to perform the show in London and Sydney, as well as in the Tony-winning Broadway production. She also appeared on Broadway in the Lookingglass Theatre production of Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses” in 2002-03 and Steppenwolf’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in 2001.

For Steppenwolf ensemble member Yasen Peyenkov, who toured with Mayberry in the company’s production of “The Time of Your Life” and directed Mayberry in “Russian Transport” (2014) and “Grand Concourse,” the actress was a woman of incredible commitment.

Mariann Mayberry in “Russian Transport.” | Michael Brosilow/Steppenwolf Theatre
Mariann Mayberry in “Russian Transport.” | Michael Brosilow/Steppenwolf Theatre

“Throughout the entire time she performed in ‘Russian Transport’ she was undergoing chemotherapy, and she was such a trooper,” Peyankov said, recalling how they gave her character a flaming red wig. “It was a very long run and she missed only a handful of performances. She just carried herself with so much dignity. And I still remember how, back in 1999, in a play about war called ‘Time to Burn,’ she came to a scene of a communal shower with her breasts bound with silver duct tape as a way to suggest the pain and humiliation of a woman in wartime.”

Mayberry, who won a Jeff Award for her role in “Good People,” also appeared in “Argonautika” (Lookingglass), “The Odyssey” (Goodman Theatre), “Hamlet” (Chicago Shakespeare Theater) and “How I Learned to Drive” (Northlight Theatre and Alliance Theatre).

Actor Jeff Perry, a Steppenwolf co-founder, noted: “From the moment she came into our lives, Mariann was a ‘home fire’ for her Steppenwolf family. . . . We will never forget her indelible, inhabited performances that somehow, magically, commingled a stunning range of human nature. Truthfulness, kindness and toughness, wisdom and innocence, sweetness and ferocity, sublime mischief and inspiring tenacity were all at her command.”

Mayberry — who lived in New York with her husband of 11 years, actor Scott Jaeck, — died early Tuesday morning with hospice care at the Connecticut home of her sister, Melissa Hollander. She also is survived by her mother, Charlotte Mayberry.

Tuesday’s performance of “Hir” at Steppenwolf has been canceled, and the theater lights will be dimmed in Mayberry’s honor. All are invited to gather at the Front Bar, 1700 N. Halsted, beginning at 4 p.m. to share memories in her honor.

Mariann Mayberry (right) appears in “Metamorphoses” at Circle in the Square Theatre on Broadway. With her are Doug Hara (from left), Anjali Bhimani and Louise Lamson. | Provided photo
Mariann Mayberry (right) appears in “Metamorphoses” at Circle in the Square Theatre on Broadway. With her are Doug Hara (from left), Anjali Bhimani and Louise Lamson. | Provided photo