After 14 Years Away, Laurie Metcalf Is Back in Chicago Leading Little Bear Ridge Road | Playbill

Chicago News After 14 Years Away, Laurie Metcalf Is Back in Chicago Leading Little Bear Ridge Road

The new Samuel D. Hunter play was written with the famed actor in mind.

Laurie Metcalf and Micah Stock in Little Bear Ridge Road Michael Brosilow

Laurie Metcalf is no stranger to world premieres. A list comprising just the highlights would include Domesticated by Bruce Norris (for which she took home the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actress in a Play), Lucas Hnath’s Hillary and Clinton and A Doll's House, Part 2 (one of her pair of Tony Awards), and November by David Mamet (a Tony nomination).

But Little Bear Ridge Road, now onstage at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre through August 4, is something else, something new even for the much-lauded veteran. Metcalf has not appeared in a full run at Steppenwolf since 2010’s Detroit, and even before the pandemic, she was looking for a project that would bring her back to the legendary house. She communicated her desire to Artistic Directors Glenn Davis and Audrey Francis, with the proviso that she be reunited with director Joe Mantello, and the search began.

Despite a lengthy hunt, nothing in the canon seemed to be quite the thing, and the Steppenwolf leaders eventually suggested commissioning a work from MacArthur Award winner Samuel D. Hunter, fresh off a triumph with the screenplay for the film The Whale, which he’d adapted from his own play. Mantello and Metcalf managed to meet Hunter for the very first time, on his lunch break in the lobby of the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, during rehearsals for a revival of his A Bright New Boise, which earned the 2011 Obie Award for Playwriting and a Drama Desk Award nomination for Outstanding Play.

Though he had hardly any idea what he might do, Hunter said yes—quickly— and four months later, the creative team had a script in hand, with a lead character built expressly for Metcalf. She discusses the production with real ebullience, and the custom fit goes a long way toward explaining why. “Sam has somehow sussed out, based on other jobs I’ve taken, how to present something that he knows I’ll be tantalized with.”

The entire creative team thinks audiences will be, as well. Steppenwolf describes the work as “a comic, cosmic and intimate drama,” set in rural Idaho, where Hunter hails from originally. It’s the sort of chamber drama the playwright has become known for: A Bright New Boise, Hunter’s breakout hit, has just five characters, and takes place almost entirely in the break room of a Hobby Lobby craft supply store. In Little Bear Ridge Road, the last two members of the Fernsby family tree, an estranged aunt and nephew, reunite to sort the mess left behind after a troubled father’s passing. They face an uncomfortable and universal question: How do we deal with other people and is connection more trouble than it’s worth? “I had a vague idea of the world that I wanted to write,” Hunter says. “It wasn’t even a story. It was just what I wanted the play to feel like. And then I just wrote it.”

Little Bear Ridge Road, Hunter is quick to note, is not about the pandemic. But the main characters’ circumstances will undoubtedly spark a kind of familiarity. “I’m hesitant to use this word, because it’s so culturally overused nowadays, but they have shared trauma around this guy,” Hunter relates. “These two people in lockdown is what brings them together.”

It’s tempting to view the entire collaboration as meant-to-be. Metcalf had been off-stage through the pandemic and was anxious to be back onstage, ideally at Steppenwolf. And Hunter, like so many creatives, had the same pent-up energy. “I have written either one two plays a year since I was 17 years old. It’s just been how I’ve organized my life,” he says. “When everything shut down, I suddenly wasn’t a playwright anymore, and it was really scary to me, artistically. The call from Steppenwolf was such a jolt of adrenaline. If I could have picked one actor on earth to write for—and I say this completely earnestly—even before this happened, if somebody asked me who I’d like to write for, I would have said Laurie Metcalf.”

Multi-honored Mantello (who last year directed the world premiere of Stephen Sondheim’s final musical, Here We Are at The Shed ) has worked with Metcalf on many successful projects, including Mamet’s November—for which she received a Tony nomination—and a pandemic-shortened Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? “What he does is lob in a note every once in a while, a special note, something you can just take and run with,” shares Metcalf. “It seems to be the exact right thing at the exact right time. Those moments are few and far between when you’re rehearsing plays. But when they happen, it’s just exhilarating.”

“The thing you don’t know when you’re going into a process like this, is it’s so important that you share a sensibility with your collaborators,” Hunter adds. “From the start, it was just so clear that Joe and Laurie and I really have a shared sensibility about what plays we want to make and what plays we like. Once you have that, then it can be just a really joyous process.”

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