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An indefatigable, unstinting and intellectually voracious artistic director who reinvented Chicago’s most audacious and aggressive theater for a new era, Martha Lavey wrestled the Steppenwolf Theatre Company — kicking and screaming — into the 21st century....

Martha Lavey, longtime leader of Steppenwolf Theatre, is dead at 60

An indefatigable, unstinting and intellectually voracious artistic director who reinvented Chicago’s most audacious and aggressive theater for a new era, Martha Lavey wrestled the Steppenwolf Theatre Company — kicking and screaming — into the 21st century....

Martha Lavey, longtime leader of Steppenwolf Theatre, is dead at 60

An indefatigable, unstinting and intellectually voracious artistic director who reinvented Chicago’s most audacious and aggressive theater for a new era, Martha Lavey wrestled the Steppenwolf Theatre Company — kicking and screaming — into the 21st century. And in her cajoling, bullying, flattering, outwitting and otherwise leading its hugely talented but famously passionate and opinionated ensemble of tightknit actors toward reinvention and expansion for changed times, this artistic director of more than 20 years became one of the most important figures in the illustrious history of the Chicago theater.

Lavey, 60, died Tuesday at Illinois Masonic Medical Center, Steppenwolf announced, after a second stroke last week; her first occurred in May 2015, shortly after she stepped down from her position at the celebrated Midwestern theater. Steppenwolf had become her life’s work, even though Lavey also was the rare artistic director interested in nurturing and supporting her competitors in Chicago theater as much as the company to which she so fervently and passionately belonged.

“What she did for Steppenwolf? It’s impossible to count the ways,” said actress, director and Steppenwolf ensemble member Amy Morton. “Steppenwolf was her life. She always, always had this company on her mind.”

Martha Lavey: 2010 Theater Chicagoan of the Year Chris Jones

In 1995, Steppenwolf Theatre Company made Martha Lavey its acting artistic director. The "acting" part of that title was not a reference to Lavey's background as an actress -- highly unusual for the head of a major American nonprofit theater -- but an expression of impermanence. There was to be...

In 1995, Steppenwolf Theatre Company made Martha Lavey its acting artistic director. The "acting" part of that title was not a reference to Lavey's background as an actress -- highly unusual for the head of a major American nonprofit theater -- but an expression of impermanence. There was to be...

(Chris Jones)

On the other hand, said Lavey’s close friend and former colleague Erica Daniels, Lavey also was fiercely loyal to her close circle of confidantes. “Martha may have been this icon of the American theater,” Daniels said. “But she could also be silly. And she would suddenly ask these really personal questions, like whether you had freckles on your chest. You’d be shocked. But you’d answer them because she had asked them. Over the last couple of years, she sometimes had to search for the right word. But she still was the smartest person in the room.”

Most artistic directors of nonprofit theaters are directors by trade. Lavey, though, primarily was an actress, a formidably potent performer whose striking onstage appearances and restless creative energy were familiar to audiences from the early days of Steppenwolf. After joining the ensemble in 1993, Lavey performed often on its stages, from “Lost Land” to “Talking Heads” and “I Never Sang For My Father” to “Aunt Dan and Lemon.” She was ever bruising for an interesting confrontation, that being the Steppenwolf way, and one tradition she had no intention ever of changing.

At Steppenwolf Theatre, in touch with our tense times Chris Jones

We critics often get asked whose reviews we most admire. I often cite the New Yorker film critic David Denby. I especially like his prescient review of the Sofia Coppola movie "Lost in Translation," starring that iconoclastic Second City alum Bill Murray.     "Coppola already knows many of the...

We critics often get asked whose reviews we most admire. I often cite the New Yorker film critic David Denby. I especially like his prescient review of the Sofia Coppola movie "Lost in Translation," starring that iconoclastic Second City alum Bill Murray.     "Coppola already knows many of the...

(Chris Jones)

Her acting career at Steppenwolf began inauspiciously, if wigged, bronzed and almost naked, in one of Steppenwolf’s most famous disasters, a 1981 production of Christopher Hampton’s “Savages.” Like many of her fellow students at Northwestern University who appeared in the show, Lavey was playing a Brazilian Indian, a piece of casting that would be inconceivable today. The role was hardly indicative of what lay ahead for Lavey — her work as an actress demonstrated extraordinary range across decades of formidable, unforgettable work. She could play eccentrics like the woman she essayed (opposite John Malkovich) in Stephen Jeffreys’ “Lost Land” in 2005. She could play a mother (in “Good Boys and True” in 2008). She could embody a terrifying recluse (in “Aunt Dan and Lemon”). And few actresses in America could nail a cameo quite like Lavey, as more than a few star names discovered on Halsted Street when some director gave Lavey a scene, and a chance to steal home base.

On the stage, she was funny, intimidating, breathtakingly smart and deeply if elusively vulnerable, all adjectives not inapplicable to the woman herself.

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Lavey took over the top artistic position in 1995 during a lull in Steppenwolf’s fortunes (she was the first woman to get the job), when its founders were looking for a new way forward.

“When she first came to her artistic directorship from years of freelance acting and scholarship,” said Steppenwolf co-founder Jeff Perry, “I don’t think Martha had ever run anything, or ever been asked to make leadership decisions taking a multitude of other stakeholders into account. She had never been asked to be so pervasively accountable to a flock of gifted, undeniably needy artists. Taking stock of her own estimation or instincts regarding a tough situation or decision was always a great strength of Martha’s. But the artistic-emotional care and feeding of the institution and of the people who comprise Steppenwolf was, I think it fair to say, more fundamentally challenging for her. She felt the depth of that challenge and her response was quintessential Martha — she grew to meet it.”

Indeed, Lavey would prove to be an indispensable and singularly long-serving artistic leader committed to new plays and fresh writers, especially women. Acting was just one of the talents of a woman who held a doctorate in performance studies from Northwestern and could (and usually did) write program notes that deserved to grace scholarly journals. In arguments private or public, over a telephone or in front of an audience with some poor interlocutor, she was singularly formidable.

Steppenwolf's 'Mom' keeps things in balance Rick Kogan

One late afternoon in her office, which is less than a block away from the Steppenwolf Theatre stage that has featured the work of such accomplished actors as John Malkovich, Gary Sinise, Laurie Metcalf, John Mahoney, Joan Allen, Gary Cole and Amy Morton and dozens of others, Martha Lavey rose...

One late afternoon in her office, which is less than a block away from the Steppenwolf Theatre stage that has featured the work of such accomplished actors as John Malkovich, Gary Sinise, Laurie Metcalf, John Mahoney, Joan Allen, Gary Cole and Amy Morton and dozens of others, Martha Lavey rose...

(Rick Kogan)

Born in 1957 in Lawrence, Kan., as one of seven children, but educated mostly at the all-girls Immaculata High School in Detroit, Lavey was the daughter of a man who worked for the CIA. Those who knew her often speculated that although Lavey had entered a seemingly different field, she had absorbed much useful advice around her family breakfast table in Michigan. Especially when it came to never fully showing your hand.

The premieres that took place at Steppenwolf under Lavey’s stewardship form a formidable list, not the least of which was Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “August: Osage County,” a show that brought Steppenwolf hurtling back to New York attention as, still, the brand name in intense American acting, and “Superior Donuts,” which spawned a TV series. Similarly, the theater created many famous productions during the Lavey era, some of which moved to Broadway, and that cleaned up at awards time. Alongside new work like Austin Pendleton’s remarkable “Orson’s Shadow,” directed by David Cromer, such shows included the Steppenwolf revivals of Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (2000) and Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (2010), both featuring Morton, in whose career Lavey took an intense interest.

“Martha was directly responsible for my directing career,” Morton said. “Martha pushed people to do uncomfortable things, just because she thought they could do them.”

But Lavey, who avoided the acquisition of spouse or offspring, saw the entire Chicago theater landscape, including its nascent storefront companies and more than a few Steppenwolf wannabes, as very much within her maternal purview.

“I have known her for 35 years and I loved her very much,” said Robert Falls, artistic director of the Goodman Theatre. “There was a privacy to Martha. She was always more interested in talking about you. She had the greatest curiosity of any theater person I have ever known. For her friends and for her community, for all of us who loved her so much, this is a loss beyond the tragic.”

As Falls also noted, Lavey could constantly be seen at opening nights all over the city, a habit that afforded her a unique place of respect among the young artists of the city who typically throw stones at the larger institutions (they never were aimed in Lavey’s direction). And she persuaded her own famous but notoriously insular institution to open its spaces to other companies who needed help — from Redmoon Theater to The Hypocrites to The Inconvenience.

She also advocated for the Chicago theater on an almost daily, sometimes hourly, basis, picking up the phone (to the chagrin of her staffers) to argue with a critic over a negative review, or, far more often, to point out a talented writer or company that she felt was in danger of being overlooked, or putting her name to someone else’s grand cultural plan that was in need of her respected imprimatur. When she found herself in front of a microphone in New York, a not-infrequent occurrence, she typically avoided waxing lyrical on her own accomplishments at Steppenwolf — despite all the Tony Awards and Broadway transfers and the New York love of brands — but spoke instead of the excellence of Chicago theater and its crucial commitment to creative community. And she rarely failed to express her astonishment at her own good fortune.

Over her tenure, which ended when she graciously and discreetly stepped aside in 2015 for Anna D. Shapiro to take the helm, Lavey greatly expanded and diversified the Steppenwolf ensemble. That was perhaps her most crucial professional achievement, for it long has been the fountainhead from which Steppenwolf work has sprung, and surely will continue to spring.

“It was Martha who reached out to us,” said the African-American playwright and Oscar-winning screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney, who became an ensemble member at Steppenwolf on Lavey’s watch and whose career exploded thereafter, as did so many of the younger Steppenwolf artists and new ensemble members nurtured by Lavey. “It was Martha who did what Steppenwolf had not done before.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office released a statement late Tuesday, saying in part: "Chicago owes a debt of gratitude to Martha Lavey. ... She helped put Chicago theater — and the gritty, gutsy Chicago-style theater for which we’re known — on the map."

Survivors include Lavey’s parents, Robert and Patricia Lavey, and her siblings: Michele Dragisity of Bloomfield Hills, Mich.; Kevin Lavey of Baltimore; Matt Lavey of West Babylon, N.Y.; John Lavey of St. Louis; Patrick Lavey of Newton, Mass.; and Jim Lavey of Oakton, Va.

An informal gathering will be held Wednesday at 4 p.m. in Steppenwolf Theatre Company's Front Bar, 1700 N. Halsted St.

Services will be in Vienna, Virginia, according to Steppenwolf's announcement signed by Shapiro and executive director David Schmitz, with a memorial to be held at the theater on a date to be announced. Steppenwolf is asking for those with "a memory or a thought about Martha" to contribute them here.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

cjones5@tribpub.com

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

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