By Annette Hinkle
Maybe it’s the fertile soil or the weather-battered buildings — there’s just something about the heartland that breeds great material for the stage. But it’s not just the setting. Beyond the atmospheric starkness of the rural landscape and those requisite dark clouds on the horizon there typically lies in middle America broken promises, lives unfulfilled and the most universal fertile ground of all — family dysfunction.
Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play “August: Osage County,” is chock full of this sort of familial angst and in his nearly three hour script, Letts is unafraid to tread heavily on this tender terrain. With audiences likely to leave the theater shaking their heads and saying, “Well, at least we aren’t that messed up,” perhaps it’s no wonder why no one on Long Island has dared to produce the play — until now.
Tonight, “August: Osage County” has its Long Island premiere courtesy of Center Stage at the Southampton Cultural Center under the direction of Michael Disher. And when asked why he’s the first, Disher responds, “No one has been dumb enough, crazy enough or ambitious enough to take it on.”
“But I think when it opens, it will be one of the finest theatrical events presented out here in a long, long, long time,” he adds.
Set in Pawhuska, Oklahoma at the rural home of Beverly Weston and his wife, Violet, the play opens with Beverly, an alcoholic and well-known poet, interviewing a potential housekeeper to care for his cancer ridden and pill-addicted wife. Then Beverly abruptly disappears without a trace, leaving a mess of a wife and a family in his wake.
As the mystery of Beverly’s disappearance deepens the three Weston daughters — Barbara, Ivy and Karen — convene at the family homestead. Ivy is single and lives nearby, but Barbara and Karen have long since moved away and are none too thrilled to be back in Oklahoma. Barbara brings her husband and 14-year-old daughter along for the ride while Karen flies in with her fiancé to await word of Beverly’s fate. Also sitting vigil is Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae, her husband Charles and their ineffectual adult son Little Charles.
Though Violet’s body may be physically slowed by cancer and her speech slurred by drugs, her taunting tongue, violent temper and scathing criticisms retain their razor sharpness and soon she is effectively pitting her relatives against one another, incurring the wrath of all along the way.
It’s a complicated and messy interpersonal process as each relationship is marred by a unique set of wounds — many of which are masked by deeply guarded secrets, which are manipulated with skill by the ruthless matriarch.
On its surface, “August: Osage County” may not look like fun, but in fact, looks can be deceiving. While there is much family drama being played out, there is also wit and moments of light heartedness.
“I saw the play on Broadway and knew I wanted to do it because three hours went by in a blip,” says Mr. Disher. “It’s well-crafted, written and developed for every single character in the piece.”
“As weighted as the material is, it soars,” adds Mr. Disher.
This stage production follows on the heels of the recent film version of “August: Osage County” starring the indomitable Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts (both of whom were nominated for Academy Awards for their performances). But if you were one of those who saw the movie and left the theater feeling less than satisfied, you’re certainly not alone.
“I think it’s a better play than a film,” says Mr. Disher. “Not all plays lend themselves to cinema.”
It also doesn’t help that a huge chunk of the script was omitted from the film in order to bring down its running time to two hours.
“How do you make a three hour play into a two hour movie? Every character was beautifully developed in the two hours and 45 minutes of the play,” says Mr. Disher who will present the full-length script at the cultural center.
“You have to have an ensemble for this play,” adds Mr. Disher who feels like he has found just that in this cast. He has been impressed by the way they have grown through the rehearsal process and how they now work as a cohesive whole.
For the actors, the monumental nature of this play has become very clear, including Linda McKnight, who plays the volatile Violet. She had read a bit about the movie but hadn’t seen it before being cast in this show.
“It’s so different than anything I’ve done before,” she admits. “I do still look for some sympathetic part of her.”
“…of which there is none,” responds John Leonard who plays Bill, Barbara’s husband. “This play will be great fodder for some drama class in college one day. Every word is carefully chosen.”
“I actually don’t find them so dislikable,” counters Joseph Marshall who plays Little Charles. “They’re a product of where they came from. They’re damaged… not bad.”
“Each character is so well written and there’s so much dysfunction and craziness in their lives, you have to figure out how to make that work,” adds Joan Lyons, a.k.a. Mattie Fae. “It’s not just you and your history, but what’s my relationship to Violet in this scene — you have to layer and layer — and every day I find something new.”
For Bonnie Grice, who plays Barbara, the process of delving into this material has brought out something unexpected from her own past — a Midwestern accent.
“I’ve been doing it in my playing of my character,” says Ms. Grice. “It’s to the point when I start out, I don’t have much of a Midwestern accent, but as I go through the play it becomes stronger.”
Ask anyone who’s left — raw emotions and a visit to the homeland can do that to you.
But this play is not just challenging ground for the actors. As the director, Mr. Disher was tasked with closely examining the relationships between each character in order to define their various motivations.
“It’s difficult, but if you check points and counter points, you begin to find out and rationalize that, yes, you can follow the crumbs along the trail,” says Mr. Disher. “You realize these people have definitive motives and definitive connections psychologically and emotionally to the other characters on the stage. If you are bright enough and savvy enough and have a cast and director who find that, that’s when heavens begin to part and you get it.”
“You have to create the dynamic … the unified dysfunction,” he adds. “I hope when people come here, they will look at three hours of a family and say ‘Mine ain’t that bad.’”
Performances of “August: Osage County” are March 20 to April 6, 2014 Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. on the stage of The Levitas Center for the Arts, 25 Pond Lane, across from Agawam Park in Southampton Village. Tickets are $22 (under 21 with ID $12). Seniors are $20 on Fridays only. Group rates are available and reservations are encouraged. For tickets, call Southampton Cultural Center at 287-4377 or visit www.scc-arts.org.