Nineteen years ago — long before he became a household name thanks to his role as the complex Gil Grissom on mega-hit “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” — William Petersen was onstage at the Goodman Theatre in the Tennessee Williams drama “The Night of the Iguana.” Set in a less-than-swanky hotel on the coast of Mexico, the play revolves around the psychic tribulations of Lawrence Shannon, an alcoholic minister in retreat from the world. Reviewing the show, critic Richard Christiansen remarked, “Petersen, haggard, haunted and railing against the heavens in a Southern accent, flings himself into the tortures of Shannon with his inimitable fiery force.”
Now, Petersen — whose recent Chicago stage forays include a Jeff Award-winning performance as a pedophile in “Blackbird’ at Victory Gardens — finds himself portraying another man in self-imposed exile in an alien environment: Sterling in Greg Pierce’s “Slowgirl,” a lawyer who sees his withdrawal to the Costa Rican jungle upended by the sudden appearance of his 17-year-old niece, Becky.
Chosen to inaugurate Lincoln Center Theater’s rooftop Claire Tow Theater last summer, and playing at Steppenwolf July 18-25, “Slowgirl” considers the all-the-too-common sin of self-involvement, the seeming ease with which we minimize our shortcomings and the ultimate price one pays for imagining that there’s anything durable enough to conceal a moral lapse forever. Sterling, who’s left behind a case gone horribly wrong, and Becky (played by Rae Gray), whose role in tormenting a mentally challenged girl may have gone beyond mere insensitivity, both have some accounting to do. She’s a typically voluble teen and he’s a man accustomed to measuring his words — not the ideal pair to sit and ponder philosophically. And yet, as playwright Pierce has imagined them, the two manage to bring one another to a clearer understanding of their respective personal dilemmas. “ ‘Slowgirl’ is a beautiful, actor-driven story depicting a unique relationship,” notes director and Steppenwolf ensemble member Randall Arney. “I love the play for Billy, as it stretches him to play a character whose strengths and rhythms are not those that he has played a lot, creating a surprising and compelling complexity.”
Story by Thomas Connors