Director Pam MacKinnon Thrives Being at Play with the Pulitzer Set

By Harry Haun
25 Aug 2012

Amy Morton and Tracy Letts
Photo by Michael Brosilow

In Chicago, Letts is known as more of a Steppenwolf stalwart than as a Pulitzer playwright, and directing him in this was a pleasure for MacKinnon, "perhaps because he is a writer himself and his parents were academics. He grew up on a university campus. He fell right into the role. Being a writer, he has a true love of language, as does George, as does Edward. It's a really good fit all the way around."

Some critics have said that, with this production, it finally becomes George's play. "Well, I think it is George's play on the page," MacKinnon conceded. "George is the engine in the play in Act One and Act Two. Then Martha comes on stage — I wouldn't even say she's an engine, but she's alone on stage and then talks at Nick for a while. Then George returns and he's the engine again. There are been some great, great ladies who've played Martha. I think it's sort of unfortunate because there aren't that many huge roles for women in their early 50s. We look at Martha as 'Omigod! It's that role,' but actually it's George. He definitely lurks in the shadows and on the periphery, throwing barbs from the side of his mouth instead of direct-on shots."

It has to be noted that Letts had a head start on the role, having done it eight-plus years ago at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, opposite the late Margo Skinner. Nor is this Morton's first time at the rodeo: she directed them in the production.

So what was it like directing a former director of this marital battlefield? A breeze, insisted MacKinnon. "I've known Amy for a long time. We've actually never worked together before, but we've had a lot of mutual friends. For her, it was an even more distant memory than it is for Tracy. When she's allowed to just act, that's what she's focusing on. She knew the role of Martha was a mountain, and she handed the reins over to me as far as director goes. I never got a whiff of regret."

MacKinnon's secret weapon is the history her two Steppenwolf stars have amassed over the years. "That's really great and, I think, shows up on stage. They have played opposite each other over a span of 23 years and quite often get cast as husband and wife. They've really grown up together on stage, which shows up in a performance. You don't have to create a backstory or emotional complicatedness. Certainly, what I've found working at Steppenwolf a couple of times — because it is such a tight theatre community — the emotional-psychological-personal history between actors is rich."