'Osage County' Meeting

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No Broadway play this season has garnered the critical response of Tracy Letts' August: Osage County, a dark comedy about a troubled, epically dysfunctional family. In addition to winning the playwright a Pulitzer Prize, August has rolled up seven Tony nominations, including one for best play, one for best director, and three for its actors. It opened in June 2007 at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago and ran for three months before plans for a Broadway transfer were set into motion.

Hailed for its extraordinary ensemble acting, Steppenwolf has already launched the careers of such actors as Gary Sinise, John Malkovich, Joan Allen, John Mahoney, and Laurie Metcalf, but the level of praise accorded August's cast is unprecedented. Then again, the demands of Letts' play, with its three-and-a-half-hour running time, are daunting. Bringing to mind a comic Long Day's Journey Into Night, August: Osage County recounts the unraveling of Oklahoma's Weston clan, which has its share of drug addiction, infidelity, and incest. When Violet Weston's (Deanna Dunagan) husband of three decades unceremoniously disappears, the couple's three neurotic daughters, with their significant others, arrive in an effort to find Dad and comfort Violet, the mother from hell. It's a family suffering from emotional paralysis and destined to implode as its members destroy each other in a dance of mutual hate.

In a dialogue with Back Stage, August actors Deanna Dunagan, Amy Morton, and Rondi Reed — all Tony-nominated for their performances — were joined by actors Sally Murphy, Mariann Mayberry, Jeff Perry, Francis Guinan, Ian Barford, and the playwright. Letts had not yet arrived when the chat began.

Back Stage: How has appearing in a high-profile hit in New York changed your lives?

Francis Guinan: It has separated me from my family.

Back Stage: Do you have more career options as a result of appearing in this play?

Mariann Mayberry: No, there are no more options. Mostly because we're all so busy. But by the time we're done with this play — some of us are leaving in June, others in December — most of the industry will have seen this play. We will somehow have met a huge number of people we never would have met before. Being in a room with Edward Albee giving an award to Tracy was extraordinary.

Ian Barford: There are many more people who seem to recognize me in the streets. That means many people have seen the show. They come up to me and smile and say, "Were you in Osage County?" And I say yes, and they say, "It's the best play I've ever seen in my life." ... Being in this play has opened lots of doors. I've had meetings, but we'll see if it leads anywhere. As Mariann says, we've all been very busy doing this.

Amy Morton: I don't know yet if the show has changed my career. As I told my agent, this show is too tiring for me to go on things. I don't know if anyone is calling and my agent is saying, "She can't go," or if no one is calling. Either way, I don't want to know what I'm missing. I just do the show, which has been really fun, unbelievably gratifying. I don't think anyone expected the success it's had. I've had people come up to me and say they've seen the show three or four times. It hits a chord that makes people relate to this family on a very personal level.

Jeff Perry: William Petersen, who is one of our old Chicago buddies, came to the show a month ago. He said, "This has to feel like being in the first production of Streetcar or Death of a Salesman or Virginia Woolf. This will last. I will never forget this." There have been so many versions of that comment. And we knew in rehearsal months ago that this could really be special, that this could pack a wallop. And it has. That changes your life. And if you get a dog food commercial or a movie two years from now, that will be wonderful.

Deanna Dunagan: People come up to me on the street and ask if they can hug me. As far as opening doors, I went on two auditions early on for movies and I got to meet Nora Ephron, but nothing came of either of them. And after that I said to my agent, "Don't call me. All I can do is the show." And I haven't heard a word. I don't think people are calling. But it has changed my life. People constantly ask to hug me and sign my name. That doesn't happen in Chicago. As far as anything real changing, no, it hasn't. And when this is over, I expect to go home and resume my life in Chicago as it was before I left.

Sally Murphy: It has changed my life in adding an immense amount of joy to it. The truth is we've all known each other for so long, we're so happy to be with each other in a rehearsal room, let alone on a stage. And to do a play by our friend Tracy Letts and directed by our friend Anna Shapiro and to have it touch a nerve from day one.

Rondi Reed: This play has jump-started my semi-stalled career. I got a TV show here, did an episode; I'm up for a bunch of things. I don't have the load Deanna and Amy have. I'm still old and tired, but it's opened up my eyes to other possibilities. And as everybody else has said, to get the kind of reaction we've gotten — I get it from actors who say, "Thank you for bringing this play to New York, thank you for not having it be with stars, thank you for trying to prove to New York that it doesn't have to be with stars, and thank you to your producers that they had the fortitude and strength to bring it to New York the way it was."

Back Stage: Have there been any real surprises?

[Tracy Letts enters the room to applause.]

Barford: The most notable surprise was the three-week stagehands strike when we got here. I think our first rehearsal was the 23rd of October and we were scheduled to open Nov. 17, and we were uncertain whether we would open at all. But the producers were able to hold the ship and we ended up opening on Dec. 4. None of us went home.

Perry: I remember a gorgeous surprise that theatre geeks might enjoy. A few of us were here a hundred years ago in Balm in Gilead, which was a big Off-Broadway hit. I remember reading about 24 reviews of that production. And no one appreciated the level of ensemble work, though the reviews talked about Laurie Metcalf and several other performances. The only ensemble work talked about in that era was the Royal Shakespeare coming in and doing two plays and what an amazing ensemble they were. Well, jump ahead 25 or 30 years, or whatever the hell it is, and our mothers with flashlights could not have shined a more loving look at every nook and cranny of Steppenwolf's ensemble work.

Back Stage: How do you account for the change?

Perry: I don't know, but it was a wonderful surprise.

Guinan: This is facetious and facile, but you know how Tony Bennett became cool when he hit 70 or 80 and hadn't been for 40 previous years? That's what it feels like being an old Steppenwolf person.

Back Stage: Tracy, I'm going back to the first question. How has the success of this show changed your life?

Tracy Letts: It hasn't changed my life too much. I'm still living in the same place. I am staying in a nice hotel for this trip.

Back Stage: Has it led to film or television writing?

Letts: No, not really. But I don't pursue it either. I'm cynical about that end of the business. So I don't hang my shingle out for that kind of work.

Back Stage: What would you like your current success to lead to?

Letts: Oh my God. This is an end in itself. It's just our beautiful play, and the fact that we get to share it with a larger portion of the population here in New York is gravy. I was stupidly satisfied with what we had in Chicago.

Back Stage: How has the production evolved in its journey from Chicago to New York? How has the acting changed, if it has?

Perry: Chicago is an amazing theatre town. It's as good a theatre town as any of us have ever been in. And we do it for a subscription audience, one of 40 subscription theatres in our town. A subscription audience of any regional theatre is necessarily limited a little bit in its demographic: Everybody went to college. They're 47.4 years old and they're white. Of course that's a generalization. But the demographics are more limited in Chicago than they are here, where there are people from every continent and around the country. New York theatre is a tourist destination. But the difference for this play has been the local New York audience. There is a darker, more emergency-room gallows humor in the New York audience than there is in the Chicago audience. What changed on stage is that we've become deeper, sadder, and darker than we had been.

Reed: I don't know that the acting has changed. Our theatre in Chicago is 525 seats. The first theatre we come to in New York is the Imperial, which is 1,400 seats, primarily a musical house. Right away we were strapped with the burden of "Your volume has to come up; you're going to have to play to the back of the house." That was a big shift for us. Then we moved to this 400-seat-smaller theatre and make another adjustment. But by this time we've built up our muscles. In fact, Anna came in and said, "You need to pull back; you're pushing too much. You don't need to pound out the plot points."... But the adjustments have done nothing but help the play and refine the play.

Back Stage: How would you characterize the Steppenwolf sensibility?

Guinan: Anyone who does ensemble work has a similar sensibility. But I think there is a Chicago ethic. In Chicago, there's something of a blue-collar quality to the acting. Most actors in Chicago have second jobs. They work in the theatre because they love it. And many of the spaces they work in are very small. There's a premium placed on keeping theatricality digestible.

Mayberry: Other regional theatres were founded by directors. This theatre was founded by actors.

Back Stage: Deanna and Amy, you have particularly demanding roles. What are the challenges of doing those parts night after night?

Morton: It's mostly a matter of stamina, especially on two-show days. On single-show days, it's "that great play we get to be in, August: Osage County." On double-show days, it's "that fucking play." I see a chiropractor and a physical therapist every week and they keep me vertical. Otherwise, I don't know if I could get through the run. And I sleep a lot. I don't do much during the day, and then I come here to do the show.

Dunagan: I see a chiropractor and an acupuncturist every week, and I would not be able to function without them. I think it's the acupuncture that really helps me with pain control and energy. I avoid caffeine as much as possible until I really have to have it. I'm living like a nun. I don't get to have a glass of wine. I don't get to go out to lunch.

Reed: We each have our own emotional peccadilloes and our techniques to deal with them. This is a high-level game and it takes a certain amount of focus. That's why I think some people — i.e., agents and managers — get frustrated with us when we say we just need to do the play.

Letts: Also, the show is not written with 20-year-olds. I think almost everybody in the show at one time in their careers could stay out, party all night, roll out of bed the next afternoon, get a bite to eat, and do a show that night, even a show like this. The demographic is much older in the play, and obviously, good actors know their limits and what they have to do to get ready to do it.

Back Stage: You've all made personal sacrifices to come here. How do you juggle being here with families back home in Chicago?

Reed: We're not all from Chicago — Jeff lives in L.A. — and not everyone has children and not everyone is married. I have a dog.

Back Stage: What did you do with your dog?

Reed: My dog came with me to New York, and it was a great decision, I have to say.

Perry: My wife is a casting director, so half of her was absolutely sympathetic.... The tradeoff is hard if you love family life, and I do. Morton: I have a husband who has been coming in every month for a short visit. So it's been doable. Barford: I have a dog. I did not bring my dog and I miss her very much. Mayberry: I have a cat, Monkey Boy, and I miss him terribly. Guinan: One of the reasons my family moved from Los Angeles to Chicago was because I was spending so much time in Chicago. As my wife said to my son, "If we move to Chicago, Daddy will not have to be away from home so much." We were back in Chicago nine months, and then I was off to New York for an eight-month stint. My family has been here twice, Christmas and spring break, and they'll be here again in July. But it's never easy to be away from your family.

Back Stage: My final question: Doing this play, what have you learned as actors?

Reed: I don't know. I'm not through yet.

Perry: The level of naturalism encouraged in this play is amazing. I've only felt this a few times in 30 years. And I've only been in two long runs in my life. So that combo has led me towards living in my acting in a way I couldn't in other pieces or in shorter gigs.

Mayberry: I feel I'm just figuring out now how to act, because I've had to watch my fellow ensemble members, who are always checking me to make sure I'm real and present.

Morton: By the time I leave, it will be the longest thing I've ever done. And though I thought I would lose my mind, I haven't yet, and hopefully I won't. I think that's because, like the rest of us, I try to keep in mind that I'm here to service the play. And when I keep that in mind, I'm less tired and less bored out of my mind. It's one of the best reminders about paying attention to your fellow actors and getting on the train and going for a ride and stop trying to steer.