I didn’t really meet Martha Lavey during the only contract I earned at Steppenwolf while I lived in Chicago, except for a professional handshake once or twice. But Erica Daniels and I managed to stay in touch after I moved to NYC, and every now and then when Erica had something going on in New York for Steppenwolf and needed a little help, she’d message me. On one of those occasions a few years ago, I wound up reading the stage directions in a private reading of a play in NYC that was being considered for production back at the theatre in Chicago.
There were a number of very impressive and accomplished people in the room that afternoon – especially the women – and Martha, of course, was among them. She was still AD at the theatre, but she had little to do at this particular event, and so she had assigned herself the jobs of hostess and craft services. She had stopped for treats and snacks on her way to the reading and was busy making sure that everyone had their fill of them before the reading started.
By any measure, I was the least important person in the room that afternoon, and I’ve never been good enough at feigning the gumption to strike up conversation with people as important as were present that day. Martha, however, perhaps being in hostess mode, took pity on me and came over to introduce herself and find out how I knew Erica.
While I lived in Chicago, I had been given an impression by others that Martha could be a bit eccentric and aloof. I don’t know why. That afternoon in New York, she engaged me with genuine curiosity, though I was the person in the room who was due the least attention. We chatted for less than ten minutes before the reading began, but long enough to move past general courtesies and reach that level of gentle confession one can experience when chatting with a stranger. I talked about how much bigger NYC felt than I’d expected, and some of the question marks I had for my career there. She was easy to talk to, and her interest was real.
At one point in the middle of our conversation, she paused and said, “well, just remember, you can always come back,” – meaning back to Chicago – and there was something so clear in her tone about the way she felt about NYC, and the way she felt about Chicago, and something equally clear about the way she spoke to me not simply as a fellow theatre artist, but as a fellow Chicagoan, that made me stop cold. And in the next moment I just laughed, because it was so thuddingly true, and because, somehow, her saying it made me feel retroactively embraced and welcomed by everything about Chicago Theatre.
She gave me a polite hug goodbye at the end of that reading. She resigned her position at the theatre later that year, and I never met her again, but Martha will remain a crucial part of my experience as a Chicago Actor even though my encounter with her occurred only after I left. Thank you for that, Martha. May you rest in peace.