By Bill Hirschman
Remarkable for unparalleled raging family furor, recriminations, love, regret, pain and torrents of alcohol-fueled vitriol, playwright-actor Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County is accepted by most as one of The Great American Plays of the 21st Century.
Palm Beach Dramaworks is deep into an unprecedented four weeks of rehearsal for this epic three-act, three-hour comic-tragedy with 13 cast members, director William Hayes, and a creative team taking on a Mount Everest of theater.
“It’s certainly going to go down in history, I think as one of the great American classics,” Hayes said. “It’s certainly the equivalent of Edward Albee and Eugene O’Neill. And, of course, because it’s perhaps (Letts’) most personal play, it’s his best play, which is generally the case.”
Why revive it 16 years after it bowed at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago and Broadway plus a handful of Florida productions? “Because it’s always going to be relevant no matter when you do it. It’s about family and the family cycle that never changes. And there’s family behaviors and family cycle that never changes.… That will be timeless forever,” Hayes said.
The plot brings together from across the country a large dysfunctional family in a mansion in a prairie stretch of Oklahoma, following the disappearance and likely suicide of its poet patriarch. The vocal and articulate family members are in various stages of internal distress, often leading to humorous jibes as well as the kind of emotional stabs that only a loved one can inflict.
As actor Bruce Linser said in an interview on the company website, “it’s hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time.”
All of the tension – relieved with dark gallows humor – is aggravated by the state of their matriarch Violet, a foul-mouthed, emotionally abusive alcoholic who is addicted to a drugstore-full of prescriptions – one of the most memorable female characters in modern American theater.
The work opened in Chicago in the summer of 2007. In December, it moved to Broadway with most of the original cast and a memorable three-story set of the family home. During its year-and-half run, it won the Pulitzer Prize, plus the Tony Award for best play, best director and best actress for Deanna Dungan as Violet. It then went on a national tour starring Estelle Parsons and Angelica Torn. A mediocre film version starring Meryl Streep came out and vanished in 2013.
It’s a daunting project, but early in the rehearsal process, Hayes contacted Parsons with whom he had bonded when she starred in Dramaworks’ My Old Lady in 2014. Parsons hooked up with the cast in a Zoom session to give insights, which turned out to be quite simple and classic.
“She says, it’s like a radio play, really. She says, if you get good actors and you stand on stage and just say the… lines, it works. And there’s truth in that. And it’s so well written,” Hayes recalled.
“Obviously, you’ve got to direct it and stage it and all those things, but it just works. And even sitting around a table, just reading it for several times, it’s funny, it’s moving, it’s exhilarating all those things that you want to be.”
The 13-member cast is dominated with names familiar to South Florida audiences, especially Dramaworks’ fans: Linser, Dennis Creaghan, Laura Turnbull, Steve Trovillion, Margery Lowe, Niki Fridh, David Hyland, Iain Batchelor, Kathy McCafferty and newcomer to Dramaworks, the veteran Sara Morsey – last seen solo in GableStage’s The Year of Magical Thinking in June.
The familiarity of the Dramaworks cast is no accident. The Steppenwolf cast had worked together for years and had a built-in chemistry.
“So when I was casting, for the most part, not completely, I was casting people I knew and people who had worked together,” Hayes said. “That always shows on stage. For example, Steve (Trovillion) and Laura Turnbull… . have played husband and wife …. like the 7th or 8th time opposite each other. But that chemistry comes built into the show… because they’re like a couple who have to feel like an old glove.”
At the center of this familial maelstrom is Violet. It’s a challenge for any actress, but Morsey – who has worked extensively in Florida back to the days of Florida Stage — played it about 12 years ago at Florida Rep in Fort Myers.
“I remember thinking, really, I was too young to be playing it. But that was not unusual for me. I was always playing older. I’m taller than everyone, so I guess I get to be the older one if it’s a toss up,” she said about a week into rehearsal.
Still, the passage of time – especially the tumult of recent years – has allowed her deeper insights and experiences to draw on.
“I think just how hard life has been on (Violet) and how hard she’s been on life,” Morsey said. “It’s come home to me over this past time with Covid and everything. I was telling people before Covid I was not old, and then after Covid, all of a sudden I’m like, okay, now I’m old. And it happened. It was like overnight. I’m really not like infirm or anything like that. But so many things happened during that time that I was forced to take my Social Security.”
Adjusting to the enforced downtime during the pandemic also made an emotional difference “of not having work to do and having to shift around and do other stuff, stay home all the time, do all kinds of crazy stuff.”
So while revaluating Violet, she thinks now, “How hard life has been on her because, I mean, she had a really hard life. I myself have not experienced the things she has, but just what it feels like when kind of the rugs pulled out from under you in a certain way. That had not happened to me before. And I’m not saying it’s anything like her, but I do feel a little bit more of the way to the world that she is dealing with.”
Still, Violet is Violet. “I’m not trying to do anything to make her sympathetic in any way…. Of course, everybody’s sympathetic in some way. I don’t think there’s a character that’s just total evil, but I think it’s perfectly possible that there are people who will come away thinking of her as perfectly savage and evil. You got to take the journey with her.”
Indeed, one challenge in the role is that Violet doesn’t soften during the arc of the play. “From the moment you enter the stage, there’s no growth to this person…. She shows her worst part right at the beginning. And then she continues to kind of show that, and then you got to stay with her to take that journey.”
Indeed, most of the roles have their challenges. Kathy McCafferty, playing Barbara the oldest daughter trying to keep the situation of exploding, portrayed another of the three daughters a few years ago.
So knowing the challenge, she began memorizing lines in advance and trying out various approaches. But in the end, she said a week into rehearsal, “the writing calls you back to do what the writing commands. I think this play is so brilliantly written that the roadmap is all there, which doesn’t make it easy to do by any stretch. You’re catching me at the moment where I’m going, I don’t know if I can do this…. You kind of have to get out of the way and just honor the play. Honor the writing.”
McCafferty graced Dramaworks’ stage in much admired performances including the Carbonell-nominated Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire in 2019, Regina in 2017’s The Little Foxes, and Outside Mullingar in 2016.
Parsons’ advice to her was “Just learn the lines and show up.”
Easier said than done. “Boy, oh, boy, did I do it wrong yesterday (in a rehearsal scene). I wanted so badly to be comforted, and I leaned into touching my husband or getting close to him, and, boy, was that the wrong choice.…Because then Tracy Letts’ writing goes somewhere else, or it just feels false. And so you have to make a million wrong choices before you get to the right one, for sure.”
And then there’s the fact that the marathon done night after night (and matinees) requires stamina, physical, vocal and emotional as a dozen troubled, tempestuous relations collide.
“I believe that Barbara is desperately trying to keep the family intact and desperately trying to save her marriage and save her mom and figure out what the hell happened to her father and keep her sisters from making poor choices and protect her daughter. And she’s failing, and she doesn’t know why. I’m sure everyone else in the play can see why, but she can’t see why.… I think it’s much like a Greek tragedy, is that the characters can’t see their own tragedy.”
She has worked up a visual image to help her: “She’s in a lifeboat, and she’s in a storm, and she’s paddling and paddling against the wind and against the waves and trying to keep her mom, her father, her sisters, her daughter, her husband from falling off the boat or jumping off the boat. So she’s fighting the storm and pulling bodies out of the water, and she can’t see that she just can’t fight the storm. Woman versus nature. You can’t beat nature.”
It’s a challenge as well for Hayes, who as producing artistic director returned to acting for this season’s 12 Angry Men.
To a degree you have to remain in charge, shaping and choosing, but “I’m a very collaborative director because I’m also and I always have been, as an actor. I always think actors have instincts and actors bring things to the table. And it doesn’t mean that I direct by committee, but I have the vision for the play and I obviously come in with strong thoughts and its design. But when an actor works within that framework, actors bring things to the table and it’s not only about me opening up their mind. They can open up my mind.”
Indeed, he thinks this script is so natural that he is striving to stage in ways that emphasize the naturalness.
“It’s not a play about the director creating pretty pictures on how people are moving. It’s about the process in creating the movement is more organic and natural. That’s what helps sell the show…. it sells the realism of the piece and brings more familiarity to it, even at that crowded dinner table. Some of the actors are like, well, my back is to the audience. (I say) no, let it be a crowded dinner table because that’s what we know. It’s okay that you’re talking with your back to the because you’re making it real.”
Short video interviews with cast members can be found at https://www.palmbeachdramaworks.org/events/august-osage-county
August: Osage County runs March 29–April 16 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Show times are 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Thursday; Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m. Tuesday, Saturday, Sunday. Specially priced previews March 29 and 30. Call (561) 514-4042, or visit palmbeachdramaworks.org.