Sharon Gless in "Cahoots"

At the height of the popularity of "Cagney and Lacey," Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly were among the highest paid women in television. Gloria Steinem famously declared the CBS drama to be "the best show on TV." And the cop duo showed up on the cover of TV Guide.

So even though more than a decade has now passed, it still seems odd that the sight of Gless in sweats, sucking down a soda in a Lincoln Avenue bar, could attract no attention whatsoever. "Cagney and Lacey" (which ran from 1981-1988) garnered Gless two Emmy Awards for her work as the tough Chris Cagney. Not only was this one of the few network dramas of the 1980s that featured women in such central roles, the show's willingness to deal with tough issues like alcoholism, custody disputes, rape and abortion also prefigured the work of later reality-based series. Cagney was an alcoholic; Lacey got cancer. Very few women characters had been through stuff like that before on dramatic television.

"That show changed a lot of lives and especially those of women," Gless says. "People came out of their closets. Without 'Cagney and Lacey,' I don't think there would ever have been an 'NYPD Blue.' "

Gless says that those "mind-boggling" years transformed her life. "But I feel like I should talk about the play," she says.

Because playwright Claudia Allen and director Sandy Shinner were sharing her table, that wasn't a surprising remark. After all, the reason that Gless is in Chicago is to star in Allen's "Cahoots," at the Victory Gardens Theater.

The locally based Allen seems to have become the playwright of choice when it comes to star female performers. Julie Harris appeared in Allen's "Winter" last year (and has said that she will return to Victory Gardens next season to appear in another Allen play).

The writer's technique for getting stars to come to Chicago and work for scale is pretty simple. She just keeps sending them her scripts and hoping that they'll read -- and like -- them. Allen is a prolific writer. "There are so many plays," says Shinner, "you could never produce all of them."

"Oh baby, was I feeling hot when Julie and Sharon both said yes," Allen observed with her usual wry humor. "It's been an amazing year for me."

Surprisingly, "Cahoots" is only the fourth play that Gless has ever done in her life (two of the three others were produced in London). A former studio contract player, Gless has spent her entire career in film and television -- her other theatrical work runs from "Faraday & Company" in 1973 to the more recent "The Trials of Rosie O'Neill."

Her only experiences in Chicago to date have been stopovers on the way to watch Notre Dame (her husband's alma mater) play football. But Gless says she liked the sound of Allen's showbiz screwball comedy about a playwriting team who pursue fame and fortune across several decades. And after some time out of the public eye, she's interested in getting back into the swim of things..

"I've always been such a realist," Gless says. "I've never done this kind of broad style before. And there are things in this script that will offend everybody."

Allen says that she doesn't like to write the same kind of play too much. "I wanted to do a Kaufman and Hart-style comedy," she says, "and see if we could make it crackle."

Even aside from Gless' celebrity and Allen's trademark irreverence, "Cahoots" is a stretch for Victory Gardens. The cast and physical production are much bigger than usual. "We don't even have enough dressing rooms for all the actors," Shinner admits, "and they don't know where to put all of the costumes."

"The run-through was really something," Gless says, alluding to its physical and emotional demands. "For me, this has been a lesson in humility."

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