For those who knew her as a hardworking grad student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Carrie Coon's red carpet debut at the Tony Awards on Sunday may feel like watching a local girl make good.
Even before her Tony nomination this spring, Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones called her "a remarkable young actress, one of the most arresting talents to suddenly appear in Chicago in years."
"It's a real Cinderella story," said Coon, who is living in New York following the successful Broadway run of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
The production, which transferred from Steppenwolf in Chicago and closed on March 3, earned five Tony Award nominations, including a best featured actress nod for Coon.
"I've had a charmed life in some ways," she said. "A lot of opportunities have fallen into my lap.
"I've met really amazing people who have shepherded me and given me opportunities I probably shouldn't have had, took chances on me at times when I was like, 'Wow, I wouldn't give me this chance.'"
Coon's first reviews came while she was training for a master of fine arts (MFA) in acting at the UW. Michael Muckian praised her "bravura performance" in University Theatre's "Homebody/Kabul" in 2004 (Muckian also called her work "brutal in its honesty.")
In 2005, Capital Times critic Rena Archwamety gave Coon props for continuing in the play "Quake" after slicing her hand.
"She went on with the show without pause," Archwamety wrote. "The blood dripping across her palm was the only sign that it had been an accident."
Not long before her graduation in 2006, Richard Corley chose her to play Emily in Madison Repertory Theatre's "Our Town" — coincidentally, also Coon's first role as a senior in high school in Copley, Ohio (near Akron).
Coon remained in Madison for a year or so, doing voice-overs and motion capture work. The year following "Our Town," Corley invited her back to play the title character in Eugene O'Neill's "Anna Christie" in Madison Rep's January 2007 production.
After moving to Chicago, Coon returned to Wisconsin for four summers (2006-2009) at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, including a turn as Helena in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." She shared the stage with fellow MFA graduate Steve Wojtas in Renaissance Theatre's "Reasons to be Pretty" in 2010, playing a combative girlfriend.
Third Coast Digest critic Peggy Sue Dunigan said Coon and her stage partner had an "explosive connection ... with a chemistry that adds affection, believability and dimension to the volatile relationship."
In between runs of "Woolf," Coon kept working. She played English-language coach Celia in South African playwright Craig Higginson’s drama "The Girl in the Yellow Dress" at Next Theatre Company in February 2012. Time Out Chicago critic Oliver Sava said she had become a "go-to actor for deeply vulnerable characters whose repressed feelings boil over and consume them ... Celia may be Coon’s most volatile role yet."
Though she hopes to work in New York this coming season, critic Jones' fear that Coon won't return to the Midwest may be unfounded. As Coon's professional star has risen, her romantic life has blossomed too: she's engaged to Tracy Letts, her costar in "Woolf."
"We had a little showmance," she said.
Letts, an ensemble member at Steppenwolf, is the author of "August: Osage County," which won the 2008 Pulitzer and Tony Award for Best Play. He also wrote the screenplay for the fall 2013 film starring Meryl Streep and recently joined the cast of "Homeland" as a series regular.
"Tracy and I are going to maintain a home in Chicago," Coon said. "That's a priority for us. That's our home — we love our home and we want to work in our home."