Tracy Letts, a playwright at home in role as an actor

(Tracy Letts By Bill O'leary)
By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 6, 2011

Some actors write, and some writers act. Harold Pinter was supremely praised for his acting forays, and Sam Shepard's face is as well-known as his plays thanks to a durable on-screen career. And yes, Shakespeare was an actor.

But Pulitzer-caliber playwrights with enough stage chops for a first-class Edward Albee revival? Pretty rare.

Now there's Tracy Letts.

The longtime Chicago performer is currently appearing at Arena Stage as George, the brilliantly subversive husband in Albee's booze-soaked marital slugfest, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" And for Washington, this is a completely new view of Letts, who is much better known for the ecstatically trashy "August: Osage County," the drama that took both the Pulitzer and Tony for best play in 2008 and planted him solidly on the international map as a playwright.

"In fact," says the tall, affable Letts, sitting in an empty cafe upstairs at Arena, "a lot of articles written at the time of 'August' were 'Tracy Letts, failed actor turned playwright.' " A gravelly chuckle escapes.

"I was like, 'Well, that's not actually the case,' " Letts says. "I'm just a Chicago actor who's a playwright. Even with the success of 'August,' the people in town who come to our theater know me by sight, because they've seen me onstage so much."

"Our theater" is the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, the famed Chicago ensemble that first hired Letts in 1993 and made him a company member 10 years later. Steppenwolf's "Virginia Woolf," the troupe's first stab at an Albee play, is anchoring Arena's festival of Albee works that will run into April.

Playing the famously braying Martha to Letts's George is Amy Morton, who not only directed Letts as George in a 2004 "Virginia Woolf" for Atlanta's Alliance Theatre but also spent two years as Violet, the ferocious eldest daughter of the ancient pill- and ego-popping matriarch in "August: Osage County." Mor ton had an excellent shot at a Tony as the Steppenwolf production hit Broadway two years ago, but co-star Deanna Dunagan edged her.

"Amy and Tracy go back almost 20 years, so that's already a marriage," says "Virginia Woolf" director Pam MacKinnon.

"He's like my brother," says Morton, adding that Letts recently told her he figures they've played husband and wife onstage maybe half a dozen times.

The acting-writing genes are in Letts's favor: His father, Dennis, taught college English in Durant, Okla., for years before turning to acting. (He eventually played the patriarch in Steppenwolf's production of "August: Osage County" and died of lung cancer during its Broadway run.) Billie Letts is author of the 1995 novel "Where the Heart Is," an Oprah Winfrey pick.

Yet the 45-year-old Letts has exercised his literary facility in just five plays, starting with the exceptionally, deliberately lurid "Killer Joe."

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