Frank Galati, pioneering Chicago theater artist, is dead at 79


Frank Galati, a pivotal figure for over five decades in Chicago theater, a Tony Award-winning Broadway director, a beloved longtime teacher at Northwestern University, an ensemble member at both the Steppenwolf and Goodman theatres, and a pioneer in the adaptation of novels and other narrative sources into exciting drama, died Monday night at 79.

His death was announced by his husband Peter Amster.

Galati had retired to Florida with Amster, but he had hardly paused a career that argued he was perhaps the most influential Chicago theater artist the city has ever seen. And, as it was widely noted Tuesday, perhaps the most generous of spirit.

There was an Academy Award nomination (shared with Lawrence Kasdan) for a 1988 screenplay for “The Accidental Tourist.” Galati’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” — featuring actors Gary Sinise, Terry Kinney and many others — originated at Steppenwolf in 1988 and went on to Broadway. It won Galati a Tony Award in 1990, and arguably did more than any other single production to tell the world about the explosive talents in the Chicago theater of the era. “An epic achievement,” New York Times critic Frank Rich wrote at the time.

Galati directed “Ragtime” on Broadway in 1998 — his original production of Terrence McNally’s adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s multifaceted novel about economic progress and social struggle became the definitive internationally known translation of the Chicago tradition of story theater.

Taken as a whole, the Galati oeuvre had two main strands. One was an emotional, optimistic, sweeping, desperately inclusive romanticism. The other was a quirky, contrarian obsession with form, a preoccupation that led him to experiment with writers such as Gertrude Stein and even anonymous medieval scribes throughout his creative life.

Harry Groener, as General William Tecumseh Sherman, with members of the ensemble in Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of "The March" in 2012.

His long list of hugely successful Chicago productions includes “As I Lay Dying” in 1995, “After the Quake” in 2005, Doctorow’s “The March” in 2012, “The Herd” in 2015, as well as the woefully underestimated world premiere of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “The Visit” at the Goodman in 2001. Galati’s 1987 production of Wallace Shawn’s terrifying “Aunt Dan and Lemon” matched the actress Molly Regan with a young actress, then named Martha Lavey Greene, who played her meek and malleable niece. Lavey, another Galati mentee, would become Steppenwolf’s artistic director.

He also cowrote “Boss,” a musical satire about Richard J. Daley based on the book by the late Tribune columnist Mike Royko, and directed both “Seussical the Musical” and “The Pirate Queen” on Broadway (neither were hits). His well-received final show, produced at the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Florida, was a new musical, “Knoxville,” penned by his friends and longtime collaborators Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the team behind “Ragtime.”

In 2009, director Tina Landau aptly cast Galati as Prospero in “The Tempest,” Steppenwolf’s first Shakespeare production.

But beyond these individual productions, which numbered among the best Chicago has produced before or since, Galati’s work on so-called story theater at Northwestern (he was himself a graduate) further blossomed in the work of his former students — most notably directors Daniel Fish, Eric Rosen, Mary Zimmerman and the artists of the Lookingglass Theatre, who met and formed their ensemble at that Evanston university.

“He was a huge influence,” Fish told the Tribune recently. “I remember in one class he gave everybody the first page of a short story and said, ‘stage it and you can’t cut a word.’ But he didn’t say how the words had to be represented, so all of your assumptions were challenged. That was incredibly freeing for me.” Over the years, Zimmerman has said often that so many of Chicago’s most innovative theater artists had emerged from “Frank Galati’s overcoat.”

Frank Galati in rehearsal for Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s world premiere production of "The March," based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, in 2012.

Galati was born in 1943 in Highland Park, the son of a trainer of show dogs. He graduated from Glenbrook High School in Northbrook in 1961 and spent a year at Western Illinois before transferring to Northwestern, where he studied with the chamber theater pioneer Robert Breen and his degrees included a doctorate in speech. He joined the university’s faculty in 1972. He became an ensemble member of Steppenwolf Theatre in 1985 and an associate director at the Goodman in 1986.

In essence, Galati expanded what material was available for the American theater by coming up with ways to adapt complex novels in dramatic form, bringing to life characters and dialogue that hitherto existed only on the pages of a book.

In 2015, he told the Tribune of his pleasure in returning to Chicago to direct ”East of Eden” at Steppenwolf. “If ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ is epic then ‘East of Eden’ is mythic,” he said, describing how much “East of Eden” reminded him of Eugene O’Neill. “The nature of ‘East of Eden’ is very tied up in Steinbeck’s personal quest. He is writing about his own moral center, his center of gravity, his love of family. Half of the characters in the book are actual friends and family members of the Steinbecks. The biblical template, obviously, is much more present in ‘East of Eden.’ It’s a version of the Cain and Abel story, the story of the one son who is loved above the other son who longs all the more for his father’s affection.”

Such was Galati’s ability to dig deep into the myths that inform human consciousness and bring them to life on a Chicago stage. Even at a relatively young age, he resembled Santa Claus.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

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Frank Galati in the lobby of Steppenwolf Theatre before acting in a production of "The Drawer Boy" in 2001.

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