THE LONG VIEW: To a lovely friend, you’re only a memory away

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Pat Grimes New pic.jpg

The phone rang that evening, though not so late I worried something bad had happened, but, in fact, I was left dismayed. After the conversation, I confirmed on social media the sad news– Martha Lavey, a friend from long ago, had passed away.

The phone rang that evening, though not so late I worried something bad had happened, but, in fact, I was left dismayed. After the conversation, I confirmed on social media the sad news– Martha Lavey, a friend from long ago, had passed away.

From 1995 to 2015, Martha was the artistic director of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, leading that troupe into a new era of vitality and respectability. Before and during her time in that position, she graced the stage at Steppenwolf and elsewhere with distinction. As an actress, Martha’s performances were lauded by audiences and by critics.

The coverage at her passing by the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, and New York Times was marked by myriad testimonies as to Martha’s energy, intellect, and tenacity on both sides of the curtain. They described her reaching out beyond the celebrated Steppenwolf organization to other theater companies, her habit of attending opening nights at smaller, storefront productions around the Second City, and her consistent exhortation of actors, writers, and directors, established or new, to achieve more than they thought possible.

These words rang true; as a sophomore in high school I was cast as Eugene Gant, the lead in Look Homeward Angel, a play based on Thomas Wolfe’s novel of the same name, while Martha played the part of my mother, Eliza. This was my first leading role, but the more experienced and capable actor, Martha, treated me as a worthy and able peer.

She held nothing back onstage; her rich and nuanced portrayal inspired and helped shepherd me to a more improved characterization.

The following year, Martha was Juliet to my Romeo. Again, her honest, earnest, and vulnerable performance gave me something grand to aspire to. Her generosity as an actress virtually compelled me become better. I could not help but strive to be as believable as she was.

What is more, she was hard working and easy to get along with, offering me encouragement when needed and putting her younger, less sophisticated costar at ease through our dramatic representation of intimacy between the two star-crossed lovers.

Martha and I lost touch after high school, but I’d often see her name in a theatrical review or, later, in reports of the Steppenwolf company receiving awards under her direction. When speaking with anyone in the theater world with Chicago connections, I would drop her name.

Four years ago, the thought occurred to get in touch: I started a letter about how fondly I remembered Martha, how much I enjoyed basking in her reflected successes over the years, and how thankful I was for the joy of acting together.

Four paragraphs along, my focus waned, but I planned to complete the note soon. To my bitter disappointment, it remains on my hard drive, four paragraphs long.

Following her death, friends and associates quoted in the newspapers universally spoke of their admiration and gratitude for Martha’s gifts, achievements, and tireless efforts. I hope during her lifetime she had some appreciation of their esteem. I regret to have waited until it was too late to convey mine.

Pat Grimes, a former South Bay resident, writes from Ypsilanti, Mich. He can be reached at grimespat19@gmail.com

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