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'August: Osage County' Is Actors' Catnip

The cast of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning play "August: Osage County," directed by Sam Gold, at The Old Globe Theatre.
The cast of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning play "August: Osage County," directed by Sam Gold, at The Old Globe Theatre.
'August: Osage County' Is Actors' Catnip
The dysfunctional family in "August: Osage County" has a new home on the stage of the Old Globe Theatre. The actors and director talk about performing this intense, hilarious, three-hour play.

A dysfunctional family has taken up residence at the Old Globe Theatre in the play "August: Osage County." The Westons of Oklahoma are just like other families, except tougher, meaner, and a lot funnier.

They Westons are the brainchildren of playwright Tracy Letts, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2008 for this darkly comic family drama.

"'August: Osage County' is like catnip for actors," says director Sam Gold. "You get to tell jokes and stories. You get to curse and scream and get mad at each other. You get to behave badly. There are very few plays out there where people behave as badly as they do in 'August: Osage County.'”

Substance abuse, cancer, affairs, transgressions, the Westons have it all. Some families master the art of denial, others passive aggression. But the Weston family? They lay it all out there - in language - lots of it.

"They’re very verbal," says actress Angela Reed. Reed plays Barbara, the oldest of three Weston daughters, all of whom return to the family home (with spouses, children and lovers in tow) when their alcoholic father disappears. "She grew up in a house where her father’s a writer and her mother’s extremely intelligent. So she has at her disposal all these words and phrases that we only wish we had on the tip of our tongue."

It's that rapid-fire dialogue, full of barbs and wit, that carry this play along. For a three-hour production, it doesn't let up. Gold notes: "You can do a play that’s 80 minutes long and it takes a ton out of you because you’re lifting this thing, whereas 'August,' it’s like a rocket that takes off and you’re along for the ride."

As the Westons gather, they learn that Violet, the family matriarch, is still nursing a pill addiction, and she’s as mean as ever. Lois Markle plays Violet. She’s a veteran actress who may look frail, but she’s a powerhouse on stage. Markle says, "I try to drill every one of them into the ground. I mean that’s my job. I mean I’m horrible to all of them. And I think Violet takes great joy in that."

Take this dinner table scene, when Violet sets her sights on her daughter Karen, who disagrees with her.

IVY: Mom believes women don’t grow more attractive with age.

KAREN: Oh, I disagree, I …

VIOLET: I didn’t say they “don’t grow more attractive,” I said they get ugly. And it’s not really a matter of opinion, Karen dear. Which you’ve only just started to prove yourself.
Markle admits, "I must say the audience gasps at that and I don’t blame them. How cruel can you be?"

The ensemble cast of 13 does fight through most of the play...and throw things. And smoke.

In fact, Markle used to be a four-pack-a-day smoker who quit in 1976. As Violet, she has to smoke almost constantly through the three-hour production (nevermind that her character has mouth cancer!). Markle says she tried herbal cigarettes but they were too harsh. "So I’m now using actual cigarettes with actual nicotine in them. I still get dizzy when I take a deep drag, but unfortunately I’m getting to be good at the smoking part. So I just don’t let my head go there. When I leave the theater, I’m a non-smoker."

Angela Reed doesn't smoke either, but in the play, Barbara, her character, asks for a cigarette after a particularly stressful family gathering. "I have to say that every night when I ask for that cigarette, I can’t wait to get it. There’s something very relaxing about it... And I don’t like to smoke at all. But I completely understand why she asks for that cigarette and enjoys it so much in that moment. But she is sadly, slowly turning into her mother, so there’s that."

Reed admits that performing "August" is emotionally exhausting. "And it’s incredibly exhilarating to to get a lot of stuff out. I don’t take a lot home with me. There’s no reason to, I’m playing it every night."

The world of this Oklahoma family really comes to life in the set, brilliantly designed by David Zinn. A three-story cut out of a house sits on the stage. It looks like a dollhouse for a hoarder or a 70s-era recluse. It has shag carpet and the windows are covered in plastic to keep out the light. Reed says it’s in great disarray. "There’s a lot of clutter. A lot of bottles a lot of cigarette butts, a lot of paper and a lot of debris."

Gold says it's all about filling out the family's reality. "I wanted it to feel like a real house, a real family." Gold makes sure the whole house is used during the play. When a scene takes place in the den, another character is upstairs reading, or in the kitchen brewing coffee. It's never distracting, but catching glimpses of family members moving in the kitchen lends an element of verisimiltude.

Gold says, "I think the audience could be getting information from what everybody’s doing when they’re not in a scene."

Gold and Zinn went to Oklahoma and toured people’s homes in order to get the details of the house just right. But Reed says there’s one detail the audience will never see. One of the stagehands stuck a wicked witch under the back of the house, with just her feet and striped tights sticking out, like in "The Wizard of Oz." "I walked by it one day and saw this witch who had been trampled by this house and just laughed….It’s fantastic!"

It’s the humor in “August: Osage County” that offsets the troubled story of the Weston family. Gold says you rarely see epic plays like this anymore. "It’s a play in the style of the great American plays like a Eugene O’Neill or Arthur Miller or Tennesee Williams play – it’s a big family drama."

“August: Osage County" runs through June 12th at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park.

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