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Joan Allen is back at Steppenwolf for 'The Wheel'

A Steppenwolf Theatre Company ensemble member returning to Chicago to appear in a show at Steppenwolf is not typically big news. Why else have an ensemble? But the case of Joan Allen is different.

Previews began Thursday for "The Wheel," a play by the British scribe Zinnie Harris. Allen is making her first appearance at her home theater company since she performed in Frank Galati's adaptation of Anne Tyler's "Earthly Possessions" in 1991.

In other words, Allen has been gone from the Chicago theater for 22 years. This weekend, she's back.

That's news enough. But there's also the matter of Allen's subsequent career, highly distinguished and diverse even by the lofty standards of her Steppenwolf cohorts. After making a big onstage splash in New York with her work in Lanford Wilson's "Burn This" (she won a Tony Award) and Wendy Wasserstein's "The Heidi Chronicles," Allen became a bona fide Hollywood star, moving relatively easily between big-budget epics like "The Bourne Supremacy" and John Woo's "Face/Off" to "Peggy Sue Got Married" and "Searching for Bobby Fischer."

Allen has been nominated for three Academy Awards: best supporting actress nods for her work in "Nixon" and "The Crucible" and best actress for her performance in "The Contender" in 2000.

"I guess I got a little burned out on theater," Allen said, sitting in her Old Town apartment the other day, by way of explanation of the 22-year gap. "Those were pretty intense plays and pretty sad characters in 'Burn This' and 'Heidi Chronicles.' I did very long runs. After that, I just found that I did not want to go to that kind of place eight times a week."

Plus, Allen had a daughter, Sadie, in 1994. "I just didn't want to leave her for three months to come back and do a play," Allen said." I only have one child, and I knew I would only have one. I did not want to miss three months of saying 'good night.' That was a lot of my reasoning."

Allen, of course, was not wanting for work while raising her daughter. Throughout the past two decades, she's remained in touch with Steppenwolf and its artistic director, Martha Lavey, and has been a willing, generous fixture at benefits and other promotional events at which the theater likes its ensemble members to appear. Otherwise, Steppenwolf mostly left her alone.

"Martha knew how I felt. I told I would let her know when that changed," Allen said.

The thaw — if that's the right word — began when Allen decided to do a play on Broadway in 2009. The piece was "Impressionism," by Michael Jacobs, and starred Allen and Jeremy Irons as a gallery owner and a photojournalist confronting their fears of intimacy.

It was not very good and died a quick death; I tried to find the right words to ask about that. "That's all right," Allen cut in. "If you're worried about that, you'd never do anything."

Anyway, she then agreed to take part in readings Steppenwolf was organizing in New York (Allen had not read a play aloud in 20 years), which led to her meeting director Tina Landau, which led to Lavey sending Allen the script to "The Wheel," which she wanted Landau to direct, which led to Allen's appearance in Chicago and renewed willingness to do eight shows a week.

Allen is no stranger to the area: She grew up in Rochelle in northwestern Illinois, and her nonagenarian mother still lives there in a nursing home. But she has tended to go straight from O'Hare airport to Rochelle. Over the past few days, she's been touring around her old apartments in Rogers Park and the like.

There will, I pointed out, be plenty of Steppenwolf subscribers who remember that performance in 1991 and, yet more famously, her work in the celebrated Steppenwolf production of "And a Nightingale Sang," which predates the current Steppenwolf building.

"Oh, I know," she said. "I am gratified to be back where I started, having lived a lot of life in the interim — some of it wonderful, some of it really, really horrible, as is the norm for most people. I am glad to come back having been through all of that."

The first of many such returns? "I have no idea," she said.

"The Wheel" is in previews; it opens Sept. 22 and runs through Nov. 10 at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St.; $20-$82 at 312-335-1650 and steppenwolf.org

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@ChrisJonesTrib

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