Actress takes a novel approach to 'Brothers Karamazov'
Company members mentioned in this article: Heidi Stillman
by Hedy Weiss
It was in May that actress Chaon Cross first learned she had been cast in "The Brothers Karamazov," director Heidi Stillman's new stage adaptation of the massive, morally questioning Dostoevsky novel, now in previews at Lookingglass Theatre.
"I had never read the book," confessed Cross, the petite, blond, porcelain-skinned beauty who plays the role of Grushenka -- the pivotal object of male attention in this tale of a father and son whose craving for the same woman ends in catastrophe. "And once I started it I was very glad I had the whole summer to get through it. I mostly read plays, and here was this sprawling, dense book. It took me a while to get into, although about a third of the way through I was completely hooked. It's a giant Russian soap opera."
Chicago audiences will immediately recognize Cross from her work in Chekhov ("Uncle Vanya" at Court Theatre and "Cherry Orchard" at Steppenwolf) and Shakespeare (she played Imogen, the formidable young bride in last season's Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of "Cymbeline"). Her command of language is always impressive, but equally notable is the way she moves -- with the grace and fearless confidence of a dancer or athlete.
"I did study both dance and gymnastics while growing up, but I never really mastered either," Cross said. "I still go back to take ballet classes now, though they are little joy and mostly discipline."
Cross grew up in Eureka Springs, Ark., spent much of her youth in Orange County, Calif. (her father, a custom builder, wanted to be part of the housing boom there in the early 1980s), and then returned to Arkansas to finish high school. She headed to Missouri to earn a degree in theater at Stephens College, and after graduation toured with Virginia-based Shenandoah Shakespeare before moving to Chicago in 2001 -- a city she had visited on family vacations but where she knew no one.
"I had already lived in California, so decided against Los Angeles, and New York was too big for a country girl like me striking out for the first time," Cross said. "And though it seems ridiculous now, from the start I just zeroed in on working at Chicago Shakespeare."
"Theater was just something I always wanted to do, starting from when I got the neighborhood kids together to do shows," Cross recalled. "But it was at Stephens that I had a teacher who helped break the ice with Shakespeare -- who taught me how you can tap into a character by using the language -- and that was an amazing discovery."
As for her startling physical beauty, Cross, 32, describes it as "a blessing, not a hindrance." But she admits that "early on I had to make decisions about nudity, and how much I'd be willing to let my character rest on that. And I continue to have to make those decisions -- actively choosing to make other choices because I want to keep from being pigeonholed that way."
There is no nudity in "The Brothers Karamazov," though there certainly is passion. (And murder.)
"Grushenka is being described as a 'wayward woman' in the show's advertisements," said the actress. "But she is someone who has had a tough life. She was abandoned by her lover when still a young girl, and taken in as a mistress by an older man who teaches her to be a businesswoman. She starts her own money-lending business and grows to be quite a brash person because of her circumstances, with the townspeople calling her a whore. When, through business, she meets Fyodor and the oldest of his three sons, Dmitri, they fight over her, though she isn't really interested in either one, and just toys with them both."
Cross (whose first name, Chaon, is pronounced as "Sean"), already has a radically different "next" project in the works.
"I'm four months pregnant," said Cross, who is married to an Irish-bred electrical engineer. "In the book, Grushenka is described as 'a full-bodied, rosy-cheeked Russian beauty,' and I'm all ready to embrace the 'full-bodied' part."