Martha Lavey, Longtime Artistic Director of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, Dies at 60

Joel Moorman/Courtesy of Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Martha Lavey

She spent two decades in the post and influenced the careers of Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Letts and many others.

Martha Lavey, who served as the artistic director of the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago from 1995 through 2015, has died. She was 60.

Lavey died Tuesday in Chicago after suffering a stroke on April 19, current Steppenwolf artistic director Anna Shapiro and executive director David Schmitz announced. Lavey had an earlier stroke two years ago.

"As faithful friends, audience members, donors, staff, artists, mentees and members of the Steppenwolf community, we were all indelibly impacted by Martha's passion, commitment, vision and unmatched intellect," they said in a statement. "Martha cared deeply for each and every one of us — no matter our relationship to her or the theater."

The first female artistic director of Steppenwolf and a fierce advocate of the theater, Lavey oversaw the production of hundreds of plays, dozens of which were transferred to Broadway and abroad.

Those included Tracy Letts' August: Osage County, which won the 2008 Tony Award for best play; Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; Sam Shepard's Buried Child; Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth; Edward Albee’s Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which earned a Tony for best revival in 2013; and Letts' Superior Donuts, which spawned the current CBS sitcom.

Letts, the actor and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, has credited Lavey for having a huge impact on his career.

"I went to her with August: Osage County before I had written it — and told her I have a three-act, 3 1/2-hour play with 13 characters in it, and there's a three-story set — and she said, 'Great! Go write it. We'll do it,'" Letts told the Chicago Sun-Times. "Her influence on my life, both personally and professionally, has been enormous. There's no way to encapsulate it in just a sentence or two."

Born in Lawrence, Kan., and raised in Washington, Lavey earned her doctorate degree in performance studies from Northwestern University. She became a Steppenwolf ensemble member in 1993 and performed in dozens of productions, including Aunt Dan and Lemon, Endgame, I Never Sang for My Father, The Memory of Water, Clockwork Orange and Picasso at the Lapin Agile.

Survivors include her parents Robert and Patricia, sister Michele and brothers Kevin, Matt, John, Patrick and Jim.