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Meet the Actors ‘Fearlessly Exploring the Human Condition’ with Tracy Letts

A Q&A with the Ensemble of 'Linda Vista'


L-R: Sally Murphy, Tim Hopper, (background) Cora Vander Broek and Ian Barford in Tracy Letts’ 'Linda Vista.'

Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Ian Barford—who plays the central character of Wheeler in Linda Vista—told us in a recent interview, “Having done second productions on several occasions, I must say that this one does not feel like a remount. It feels like a new production altogether.”

With the addition of a new ensemble member, Barford, along with most of the original Steppenwolf cast, reprise their roles in Tracy Letts’ play at the Taper January 9 – February 17, 2019. We asked the actors playing alongside Barford how they prepared for their roles and what it means for them to be a part of this production in Los Angeles.

Chantal Thuy, Minnie

What did you think when you first read the script?
I was thrilled that a young Vietnamese girl was being represented in the play. There are very few plays with a Vietnamese-specific character that’s also written with so much human complexity, humor, and one that defies stereotypes. I can also relate very deeply to the themes and issues discussed in the play, so I connected immediately to it.
How did you approach the role of Minnie?
Minnie is a version of me in my early 20s, with obvious differences, but not a far cry from experiences I’ve had in my life. So on a human level, I can connect to her experiences. She’s also different from me in many ways, so I rely deeply on my imagination when putting myself in her circumstances. The costumes, hair, and makeup has really informed me on the overall physical behavior, mannerisms, and gait of Minnie.
What is it like joining the Steppenwolf cast?
A dream come true. I watched half of this cast on stage during the Broadway run of August: Osage County while I was in theatre school, so I am in awe to be sharing the stage with them. Not only is everyone incredibly talented, they are all so supportive as people on and off the stage. You really feel like you are part of an ensemble where you have each other’s back, and I think that’s what makes the Steppenwolf ensemble so great. Everyone works together, and this generosity of spirit holds you up and connects you to each other and the play. Actually, Tracy told me that one day, and I realized it as I started experiencing it directly.
L-R: Chantal Thuy and Ian Barford

Troy West, Michael

How did you approach the role of Michael?
I think of Michael as a person who has experienced a crisis and has lost his ability to stay open and curious to the world around him and has now given up on the possibilities life has to offer. Hence, he now lives at home with his mother. His is a cautionary tale in that Wheeler will become him if he’s not careful. Perhaps, most crucially, Michael has forgotten a simple truth: that every living thing has a soul with feelings that can be hurt.
What was the collaborative process like with Tracy Letts?
Fantastic! I was in Great Men of Science Nos. 21 and 22 at Lookingglass Theatre Company, which Tracy directed. He would say a single sentence, and everything was clear to me. Often, as actors, we are subjected to meandering, indulgent diatribes from directors. He was and is a master of direct communication. The writing speaks for itself, so full that it remains in one’s blood long after a run has ended. Genius!
What are your thoughts on California audiences seeing this play?
Thrilling! Los Angeles is so far ahead of the rest of the country in so many respects. It is an honor and an amazing learning experience for me. And a big shout out to the backstage crew at the Mark Taper Forum!

Cora Vander Broek, Jules

How did you prepare for the role of Jules?
Jules is a life coach with a master’s degree in happiness. There’s a tremendous amount of comic potential there. However, the trap would be to play the stereotype for laughs and overlook the complexity that Tracy has woven into the character. Yes, she’s positive, hopeful, and aspirational, but she’s also a little sad, with a deep longing for partnership and connection. Part of my journey into Jules has been to focus as much, if not more, on the parts of her that are messy. You can be a life coach with a degree in happiness and still be deeply lonely and make poor choices in love and life. That contradiction is what makes her human and relatable.
What has the collaborative process been like with Tracy Letts?
Not only is Tracy a masterful writer but an extraordinary actor as well. Both those gifts make him such a valuable force in the rehearsal room. He and Dexter Bullard, our director, have worked together quite a bit and share a lovely working relationship. Both are deeply respectful of one another but also egoless when it comes to allowing the other to step to the forefront when necessary. There were a number of times during rehearsal when we would turn to Tracy for insight on a line, scene, or character. He was always available with clear, concise thoughts that were inevitably nuanced and always actable. And, best of all, he was never too proud to admit when he didn’t know. His trust in us was empowering.
What is the most rewarding thing about being in this production?
The opportunity to originate a role in a Tracy Letts play has been, of course, deeply gratifying. But even more so, in the midst of a very polarizing time in our country, it is moving and healing to be a part of a production that is fearlessly exploring the human condition in all its ugliness and beauty.
L-R: Cora Vander Broek and Ian Barford

Tim Hopper, Paul

What did you think when you first read the script?
I was struck by how funny it was. After that, I wondered about how an audience would respond to an anti-hero like Wheeler. But audiences really respond to the humor, which I think makes it easier to be on Wheeler’s side.
What do you hope audiences take away from the play?
I hope audiences will bring an open mind and heart into the theatre and then look at their own lives and think about the ways their lives intersect with the characters—the ways they’re similar and the ways they’re different, but without judging. We’re all capable of less-than-enlightened behavior, let’s say.
What has been the most memorable moment in this production for you?
The most memorable moment in this production has been seeing the audiences cringe and wince when I sing karaoke. It’s a portion of the play I call “Beauty and the Dork,” because Sally Murphy sings so well, and I do not.

Sally Murphy, Margaret

How did you approach the role of Margaret?
Margaret’s story is at heart the relationship between three people who have been friends for 30 years—one being her husband Paul and the other Wheeler. I’ve had Ian Barford and Tim Hopper in my life for a very long time, so I started there.
What do you hope audiences take away from this play?
This is a direct quote from the play: “It’s harder than it looks. Being a person.”
What does being a part of the Steppenwolf family mean to you?
I believe there is a power to our work due to our artistic history and our relationships.
L-R: Troy West and Caroline Neff

Caroline Neff, Anita

How did you approach the role of Anita?
Anita is so interesting. She’s strong, independent, and very durable. Our scenes are written so eerily close to work experiences I’ve had that I had to really take some time and reflect on my responses to those. Anita has an amazing ability to let the harassment she experiences roll off her back and focus on her own big picture, which can be really tricky, so I had to steel myself a bit for that.
What do you admire the most about your castmates?
They are each sensitive, collaborative, and incredibly thoughtful, smart people and artists. I’ve appreciated their willingness to try anything, and their ability to speak their minds when it’s necessary. I feel really fortunate that we all like each other as much as we do. Plus, they’re some of the best actors I know!
What does being part of the Steppenwolf family mean to you?
Being a member of an ensemble is so special. I belong to two in Chicago—Steep Theatre was first and Steppenwolf was second. I think the great gift of an ensemble is the possibility of multiple collaborations with the same artists. There comes a time with the people you work with frequently when you can’t keep pulling out your same tricks; my ensembles challenge me to constantly be growing, both onstage and off. Steppenwolf is populated with artists that I respect so much, and to be able to call them family is really a dream.
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