Martha Plimpton may be one of the newest ensemble members of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company—she only joined the 25-year-old troupe in 1998—but she is one of the hardest working. In the last three seasons, she has appeared on the Mainstage three times. And she hasn't been taking on just any role. After years of film work ("Running on Empty," "The Goonies," "I Shot Andy Warhol"), Plimpton has lately concentrating almost exclusively on leading parts in towering classics: Laura in Williams' The Glass Menagerie, Pegeen Mike in Synge's Playboy of the Western World and, currently, the title role in Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, which runs at Steppenwolf through August 19 and is directed by Douglas Hughes. The latter two were also seen at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre. Ironically, none have made it to New York City, the actress' hometown. She was born there in 1970 to actors Keith Carradine and Shelly Plimpton and began acting herself only eight years later, often playing tomboys and other rough-and-tumble types. A hoarse-voiced Plimpton spoke with appealing bluntness to Playbill On-Line (one imagines Hedda and Martha would be about evenly matched, temperament wise) one recent morning after a performance as Ibsen's heroine.
Playbill On-Line: Kate Burton is due to play Hedda Gabler on Broadway this fall, and Judith Light is now playing it in Washington, D.C. Why do you think everyone's mad for Hedda all of a sudden?
Martha Plimpton: You know, it's a great fucking play. And there are these two new translations, Doug Hughes' and Jon Robin Baitz's, and these guys have brought to us a new approach. It's just one of those things. I think the play's periodically going to see a lot of activity every now and then.
PBOL: What do you think Doug Hughes' translation has brought to the play?
MP: Well, I think it's a very crisp translation. It's very spare. It's somewhat stripped of a lot of the 19th-century conventions, the ultra theatricality that was needed at that time. There are elements of the theatricality in there, because it's necessary to the play, it speaks to the characters and the specific world we're delving into. But on another level I think he's basically given us the bare bones.
PBOL: Is Hedda relevant to today's times or is the work's popularity due mainly to the play's being a great dramatic story.
MP: I think it's definitely relevant. Any really great drama is timeless, right? The reason why it's classic is because of its universal relevance. I think that's true for Hedda. My God, what better time to explore the difficulties of boredom than now? [Laughs]
PBOL: Oh? Do you find life incredibly boring?
MP: [Laughs] No, I wouldn't say I do. But sure there are times when Hedda's dilemma is very clear and understandable to me. First of all, I think her situation is very common in women in their 20s. It's a time when your learning the limitations of charm. Those things are wearing thin. You want something more, and yet at the same time you're remembering it was so much easier when it was all you needed. There's a reason Ibsen wrote the play for a 29-year-old women and it has very much to do with that time in a woman's life when they begin to feel that they've "danced themselves out," as she says. PBOL: You've been playing some pretty heady roles in the last few years: Pegeen Mike in Playboy of the Western World, Laura in The Glass Menagerie and now Hedda. Why the onslaught of classics?
MP: Someone asked me that the other day, they said "You're like the person at Steppenwolf who does the classics." It's sort of weird. I don't know how that worked out. So far, it's been the material that I've most been turned on by recently.
PBOL: But the roles were brought to you rather than you seeking them out.
MP: Yeah. Hedda was, as was Playboy and The Glass Menagerie.
PBOL: While you're on this tack, any other classic roles you'd like to tackle?
MP: I'll do 'em all, baby! No, whatever comes up. There's something really cool about the fact that Steppenwolf is doing this play in the summer, and has Uncle Vanya in the Studio. These are risky choices, I think.
PBOL: Not exactly light fare.
PBOL: Doug Hughes directed you in Playboy and Hedda. Do you like him as a director?
MP: Oh, my God! Do I like him as a director? He's completely spoiled me. He is the best director I've ever worked with. First of all, he's one of the most knowledgeable people, one of the richest resources for an actor; he is immersed in the history of the play. In that sense, he can pretty much put any question that you've got into a new context for you, and help you to answer the question.
PBOL: Do you two plan to collaborate again?
MP: Yes, absolutely. In our teary goodbye the other day we talked about a couple things and said it was essential we work together again. That's a great thing about Doug. He grew up in the theatre, his parents [Barnard Hughes and Helen Stenborg] both very fine lifelong actors. He believes in a theatrical community and colleagues who grow together and keep in touch and spend holidays together. He really, really loves actors. He loves them!
PBOL: You're venturing into directing next season at Steppenwolf, with Robert William Sherwood's Absolution. Why now and why this play?
MP: I was pouring through a lot of stuff and I thought this was the most interesting play. I really just responded to it. It's a very lean work, very muscular, very well written. It's also in many ways a very practical thing for me in the sense that it is a very actor driven play. I've been doing this for 22, 23 years and I have no idea if I'll be any good at directing, but I have a feeling that my heart is in the right place. In that sense, I just trust myself—and I frankly trust the judgment of the theatre. [Laughs]
—By Robert Simonson