Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf is one of the undisputed modern classics of American theater. It’s a tale of love and destruction, reality and fantasy, and is a play everyone should read once in their lives. Adapting it is a challenge, and Albee himself keeps a tight hold on any productions of the play — he needs to approve adaptations himself. But the Steppenwolf Ensemble, an iconic Chicago institution, was more than up to the task this year. North by Northwestern got the scoop from actress Carrie Coon, who plays Honey in the production, which is running until Feb. 13.
I read that this was your first Steppenwolf production? How was that?
Yes, it was! Well, the Steppenwolf is just sort of legendary, isn’t it? Certainly every theater ensemble I’ve worked with have been very positive experiences in my work, and I’ve worked with some very fantastic actors, but there is something really exciting about being on that stage where so many legendary actors and productions have evolved. I feel really lucky!
How was the audition process?
Basically what the casting director does is go through agencies, so my agent called me for the audition, I went in for a first round which I put on for the director on tape. The second round was a live audition with the director and Tracy Letts and Amy Morton, the starring roles in the play. I thought I was done, but they called me in the next day for a final read with the director. So the audition process ended up having three rounds.
What’s it like being in such a well-known play?
You know, I really like a phrase they have at the Steppenwolf, which is if you’re going to do a classic play or a well-known play like Virginia Woolf, you have to just approach it as a new play. And I think that’s exactly what we’ve done and I think that’s the best way to work at it. You can’t go into it thinking “I want to be like Sandy Dennis in the movie” or “I want to steal that bit from Elizabeth Taylor.” You have to treat it like brand new material and see what comes out of you. I think that’s a really good attitude.
Did you guys take any artistic liberties with the play?
Well, with Mr. Albee there’s no room for artistic liberty. He’s pretty vigilant, comes out to rehearsal and has say over the casting, and he can shut down a production if it’s not going the way he wants it to go. I think what we tried to do was, other than artistic liberties, think about artistic integrity and staying as true as we could be to the script. And what’s coming out is our own take on the script and I think our own truth comes out. It’s a new version than I think has been done in the past and I think Mr. Albee was okay with it!
What was it like having Albee on set?
It was great! He was really lovely and generous and has a really good sense of humor. He didn’t want to be in our way or intimidate us. So he was very careful to go through Pam [MacKinnon, director] for any concerns or tips he had for us; he never went directly to us. Which I thought showed how much he respected Pam and her authority and her ability, as well as respectful of us as actors and our process. He understands what actors are doing.
It’s just so cool that he came out there!
Yeah, it was amazing, I couldn’t believe he was there! I was terrified; we were all terrified.
What do you like best about playing Honey?
She gets to do some pretty funny stuff. The roles I normally get put in are pretty dramatic and heavy, which this play definitely is, but I got to play a role that required some comic timing.
Who’s your favorite character from the play?
Oh, gosh! Boy, that’s a tough question. I think George gets the best lines. He definitely gets the best zingers.
When you first read the play, who were you rooting for, George or Martha?
Ah, that’s a really interesting question. I guess because I had the memory of the movie in my mind, I remembered it being George that I was rooting for because my memory of Martha was this sort of huge, raging, horrific, larger-than-life presence that needed to be reckoned with. And he was the underdog, and I tend to root for the underdog.
How would you briefly describe the play?
I would describe the play: it’s an examination of whether or not it’s possible for us to let go of our illusions, and thrive. And I think the argument that Albee is making is that the truth is better than living with illusions, and you can’t really live your life in an authentic way unless you let your illusions go. And I think that’s a really important lesson for anyone who’s growing up and moving through the world, because it’s really easy to latch onto things that just aren’t real and don’t let you see the forest for the trees.
What’s next for you?
Right now I’m planning on heading to the American Players Theatre in the summer. My boyfriend and I will be playing a play called The Cure at Troy, by Seamus Heaney. So we’re out in the woods, doing some classical theater, which I love doing. This will be my fifth year doing that.