This summer, Kate Arrington takes on a new role at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago—that of playwright. An ensemble member since 2007, she has acted in some dozen Steppenwolf productions—most recently East of Eden in 2015—and her film and TV credits include Mare of Easttown, Billions and Knives and Skin. While she has pursued writing over the years, it typically has been either a private endeavor or a collaborative effort with colleagues. However, with the world premiere of Another Marriage June 15, Arrington makes her playwriting debut with a story that has deep personal roots.
“I was inspired by my parents’ marriage because my parents got divorced many, many years ago, and my mom got diagnosed with this sickness that progressed very, very quickly and suddenly needed 24-hour care,” relates Arrington. “We hadn’t figured that out at all, and my dad ended up being the one to move to New York and to take care of her, so they kind of re-found their marriage. There were a lot of steps along the way redefining ourselves as a family after a very painful split, so I was interested in the idea of the other side of a successful marriage.”
In Steppenwolf’s production, ensemble member Ian Barford and Judy Greer play Nick and Sunny, a couple whose story begins in a “very traditional” way, says Arrington. “It’s the story we’ve seen many, many times, of people who fall in love, and then something goes very wrong, and that’s the end of that. And I think it would be the end of it, except that there is this tiny baby that exists. And so, the second act goes into a less charted territory, asking, ‘Who are we to one another after we’ve definitively failed as a couple?’”
Steppenwolf cofounder and ensemble member Terry Kinney—who has directed several productions that featured Arrington, including East of Eden—returns to direct Another Marriage. Close collaboration among ensemble members has been key to Steppenwolf’s success since the theater first set up shop in suburban basements in the mid-1970s. The company also has a rich history of premiering new works, many of which have been penned by ensemble members. To this day, Kinney vastly prefers working on new shows instead of revivals. “It’s new, raw material that you get to sprinkle with your own psyche. So many of our company dynamics have come into play with shows that accommodated them in some way. I look back to a play like Orphans [the Lyle Kessler play Steppenwolf produced in 1984–85, directed by Gary Sinise and starring Kinney, Kevin Anderson and John Mahoney], says Kinney. “Our dynamics started getting very, very intertwined with the material.”
Like many theater productions of the early 2020s, Another Marriage was programmed before the pandemic, but had its opening date pushed back. In the interim, Arrington lost her own mother, and the play has evolved in light of this loss. For example, Jo, the daughter (played by Nicole Scimeca, who appeared as the young Anastasia in the eponymous Broadway musical) has taken on a more important role in telling the story. “Sunny’s role and Jo’s relationship to her, has been the biggest thing to change,” notes Arrington. “And the story of Sunny’s mother—who really does die way too early, before she has a chance to really experience motherhood and her own potential—that’s become much more important.”
While informed by her own life, Arrington—like any playwright—hopes that audiences will relate to the play, no matter what their own experiences may be. “And I hope there’s joy,” she says. “I hope we’re able to tell a semi-devastating story with a lot of joy.” Adds Kinney, “People are people, and they behave like people, but in this case, what we’re offering is that life is plentiful, and when you can replace passion with responsibility and a sense of service, then you’re doing the world a favor, and you’re doing your family a favor. We’re coming out of this pandemic, and I hope that people relate to it in a way that can help them go on.”
Another Marriage runs at Steppenwolf Theatre through July 23.