Humor is defiance,” observes Nora Dunn. “And this play is defiantly funny.” The Chicago native — who first gained national attention as a “Saturday Night Live” cast member — is speaking about “The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington,” which opens April 2 at Steppenwolf Theatre. The show centers on the first first lady as she lies on her death bed, surrounded by the slaves who will be freed upon her demise (as the president had dictated). Penned by Philadelphia-based performer and playwright James ljames, it’s a time-bending tale with references to Madonna, Michael Jackson, and TV game shows.
“This script really takes aim at our Founding Fathers, but it’s not pretentious or preachy,” notes Dunn, who plays the title role. “It’s really funny and yet very sad and tragic. It’s about America as this messy chaos. But [you won’t] walk away feeling hopeless. It’s a beautiful story about real people.”
Raised on Chicago’s West Side (she now divides her time between Evanston and Southern California), Dunn didn’t grow up dreaming of a life in the theater. “My father was in community theater and performed at Theater on the Lake, but we didn’t go to [shows]. We went to Grant Park concerts and later on I went to Second City a couple times, but I wasn’t really aware of Chicago as a theater town when I was growing up.”
After attending the School of the Art Institute, Dunn followed a boyfriend to San Francisco, where she studied acting at the City College of San Francisco. “There was very good theater there, but not enough of it,” recalls Dunn. “So I started writing my own funny monologues in different characters. That’s how I got drawn into comedy. I thought I’d eventually go to New York and that’s where I’d be discovered, as an actress, not as a comedian.”
Dunn has written and performed her own one-woman shows and appeared at Drury Lane in Oakbrook Terrace in the comedy “Boeing Boeing.” But TV and film have always been her media; her latest movie is “The Lost Husband” with Leslie Bibb and Josh Duhamel. “I haven’t really done theater, but this play came to me and I just said, ‘I’m doing it. … There’s no two ways about it.’ It’s pretty terrifying to do a play, but I’ve read this play probably 30 times now. I know my way around it and it’s really brilliant.”
“The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington” runs April 2-May 17. Tickets start at $35. 1650 N. Halsted; steppenwolf.org