Losing your lead actor on opening night has got to be every cast’s worst nightmare. It came true for renowned American company Steppenwolf Theatre, whose critically- acclaimed production of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross was set to open at Harbourfront’s World Stage Festival on April 2. When actor Mike Nussbaum was called home to Chicago due to a family emergency, the show lost its star, and at that point, most companies would’ve called it quits.

Not Steppenwolf. The company showed the polish and professionalism that’ve made it famous by refusing to shut down. Delaying the show’s opening by just one day, company member Rick Snyder stepped into Nussbaum’s empty shoes at the last minute, and though he had little time to prepare for a demanding role in a complex play, he gamely stepped on stage and, script in hand, gave it his all.

Glengarry Glen Ross follows Shelly Levene, a real estate agent stuck in the ways of the old days while slick, younger salesmen waltz in to steal his place on the all-important sales board. Unable to make the sales he needs to stay ahead, Levene is forced to grovel with slimy company man John Williamson, and, when he can’t get the leads he needs, to commit a desperate deed that lands him in unfamiliar territory.

Mamet’s salesmen are slick and quick-talking, loose with obscenities and even looser with false flattery, and the uniformly strong cast had the rapid-fire timing of the dialogue down cold. While seeing Snyder on stage with a script in hand was somewhat disorienting, and there were times when one wondered if he’d manage to make it through a sentence without tripping up, he did remarkably well for one who had less than twenty-four hours to get acquainted with the role. In moments of panic, he was often saved by those on stage with him, particularly David Pasquesi, whose hot-shot Richard Roma oozed confidence and cold, calculated salesman charm.

Accolades are due to Derek McLane’s extraordinary set design, which elicited gasps of awe from the audience on opening night. The set for the first act looked as if one had ripped out a piece of an upscale Chinese restaurant and placed it on stage, from the two leather booths surrounding tables set with soya sauce and other condiments to the detail of the dark red wall panelling engraved with Chinese characters. Even more astonishing was the set for act two—after a fifteen-minute intermission, the curtain rose to reveal the Chinese restaurant gone and an absolutely lifelike office in its place, complete with an inner room, an exit door that lead to a visible brick-lined alley, and functioning ceiling lights. How such a quick change was managed remains a mystery.

Watching the Steppenwolf Company perform is watching theatre at its best. Glengarry Glen Ross pulled its audience in and rarely let go, and one was left to wonder—if this is what they can do with a lead actor gone and his replacement on-book, what can they do at full strength? The possibility alone inspires awe

Stay up to date. Sign up for our weekly newsletter, sent straight to your inbox:

* indicates required