Rae Gray and William Petersen in <i>Slowgirl</i>.
Rae Gray and William Petersen in Slowgirl.
(© Brosilow)
In a theater, film, and TV career approaching 40 years, William Petersen has been known for the precise focus of his performances and for his tense, often sexual, and usually explosive physicality. Even TV cameras have captured the intensity of his eyes and the aggressiveness of his portrayals. Whether playing Stanley Kowalski or a cop or a criminal, Petersen's total commitment generates believable depth of character.

Since cashing in his CSI chips — and a substantial pile of chips it was — Petersen has returned to Chicago (where he grew up and began his career) and joined the ensemble of the famous Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Local audiences now see Petersen in a play just about every year. However, it's a changed him, we see, an actor who has embraced middle age about as gracefully as anyone can. He's not afraid to let audiences see he's a bit paunchy, or to appear with an unkempt beard and a shock of now-gray hair.

This is the Petersen on display in Slowgirl, a new (2012) two-character play by Greg Pierce in which Petersen plays Sterling, a 50-something lawyer who has lived for six years in the Costa Rican jungle. A man in permanent retreat, Sterling prefers silence to speaking. He has no personal relationships or meaningful friendships and nothing particular to occupy his time. Sterling's solitude is interrupted by his niece, Becky, 17, whom he hasn't seen in nine years. Becky (Rae Gray) comes on retreat, too, although her visit is only for a week.

Slowgirl is a wonderful vehicle for two actors from different generations, although it's not a particularly significant or complex play. In most ways, it fits the classic template of a two-hander, a play in which two people who haven't seen each other in years reconnect under forced circumstances and change each other's lives after personal confessions. In this case, both Sterling and Becky are in hiding.

Nine years earlier, Sterling's law partner was imprisoned for financial improprieties. Sterling was acquitted of the charges, but his wife left him in the aftermath, and he is still regarded as a crook by many, even Becky's father. After a bout of depression, Sterling retreated to Costa Rica. Becky is down to chill for a week before returning to the States, where she's been implicated in the death of an emotionally challenged girl at a party where underage drinking and drugs went out of control. Pierce heavily implies that both Sterling and Becky are as innocent as they say, but both have been tarred by awfully gooey brushes and circumstantial evidence.

Becky is the showy role: A 17-year-old fresh from the States, she is sexually active and unafraid to say anything. Her frank talk about sex shocks Sterling at first, and Becky enjoys shocking him. Gray plays Becky with gusto and naïveté as a somewhat spoiled-but-scared young woman more than a little surprised by her encounter with a real jungle. Petersen as Sterling is lower-key that we are used to seeing him, much quieter than Becky, much less emotionally forthright, and more contemplative. He, however, disappears as completely into Sterling as he always has in other roles. He fills the long silences with thoughtfulness that the audience can "hear"; he moves slowly and with deliberation, and each verbal hesitancy is believable. In short, Petersen's integrity within his character remains as intact as it's ever been, even in a calm, middle-aged mode. Pierce's script has solid, truthful dialogue and just enough humor, but it's the integrity of Petersen and Gray that makes more of Slowgirl than might actually be there.