Hardly a day goes by now that the Internet doesn’t feature a story about how no one is interested in inheriting their parents’ and grandparents’ “brown furniture,” and all the rest of the possessions and memorabilia that have filled up their closets, basements and garages over the decades. The truth is, most of us have accumulated far too much of our own stuff, and the thought of absorbing fine china, keepsakes, books and boxes of old photos full of unidentifiable relatives only brings the words Goodwill and dumpster to mind.
And yet, there is so much history buried in some of that stuff — so many family stories both vaguely recalled and still to be discovered. And that is part of what drove veteran Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member Molly Regan to write “The Accidental Curator,” the one woman show she will perform Jan. 12-14 as part of the theater’s LookOut Series.
‘THE ACCIDENTAL CURATOR’ When: 8 p.m. Jan. 12 and 13; 2 p.m. Jan. 14 Where: Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theater, 1700 N. Halsted Tickets: $40 Info: www.steppenwolf.org/lookout Run time: 90 minutes, with no intermission
Regan’s “journey through the skeletons in one family’s closet” began a number of years ago when she and her husband were on vacation in Italy, and she sent an email to then artistic director Martha Lavey explaining why she couldn’t be at the annual ensemble pow-wow in Chicago.
As Regan recalled it: “I told Martha [with whom she had first collaborated in the landmark 1987 Steppenwolf production of “Aunt Dan & Lemon], that every time I turned on the TV in our hotel room I’d see a Steppenwolf actor, and how hilarious it was to see John Malkovich, dubbed into Italian, selling Nespresso machines. And she wrote me back asking ‘Do you write, because this was really funny,’ to which I replied, ‘Oh, just some essays.’ She would later tell me: ‘We don’t do solo shows, but go ahead and write something.’ And I now consider myself among the really lucky ones — among the last names on the long list of writers Martha encouraged and helped. She even came to a workshop of the show last year, not long before she died.”
Regan had penned about 15 essays by the time all this happened, and says it took more than four years of thinking about the possible arc her show could take before it evolved into its current form. She credits both Mary B. Robinson (the award-winning director and teacher with whom she has often worked, and who has staged this show), as well as her husband, Conrad Osborne, a music critic, with helping her shape it.
“It’s really a sort of family history, from the 1880s to the present, as well as a look at the person who will end up with all the stuff,” said Regan, confessing that she turned out to be that person — “the repository of family memory, and the appraiser and disseminator of the valueless and the invaluable.” (The actress, who has lived in New York for decades, confesses to being among those supremely lucky people to have a “large, rent stabilized apartment in Manhattan,” so storage space is not the usual issue.)
“I wanted to know what the people in my family were really like — not just what they looked like in the photos,” Regan explained. “I realized it was my job to pass on some of the family stories, and annotate them. And finding the stories behind those faces is, of course, what an actor does.”
The show is deeply rooted in Regan’s family home located on a lake outside “the very Midwestern town” of Mankato, Minnesota. (Adding to the story is one particular object, “the mystery prop that very few people can identity,” that she brought from the Mankato home.)
“The story goes back to my great-grandfather, who I never knew,” said Regan. “He died in 1946, but during the 1930s he was a Democratic candidate for both senator and governor. I also focus on my own father, who was a lawyer-turned-businessman who got into the cable TV business as far back as 1955. And I delve into the really weird story of a murder — one committed by my brother’s brother-in-law, for whom my father served as defense attorney — although I’ve changed some names.”
Asked if there were one person in her family she’d like to play, Regan said: “Yes, it would be my great-grandmother, Nellie — a heroine in her own way, even if most of the movers and shakers of those past times were men. And there is this: Look who ends up telling the stories 100 years later.”