The 2008 Tony and Drama Desk winner for best play and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama, Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County, has made its way out east, opening Thursday, March 20, at Southampton Cultural Center for a three-week run the director says will be riveting and bitterly funny.
The play is a drama and a black comedy. “I consider it a tragedy with humor,” director Michael Disher says.
Set in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, three daughters—and their significant others—come together at their parents’ home when their father goes missing. Under a roof once again with their psychologically abusive and manipulative mother, over the course of three weeks many unsettling things are uncovered.
“It is a very ugly family dynamic …” Disher says. “There are many secrets and truths to be revealed that have long been buried in the family history. That can make for some very, very good theater and some very tense dynamics on stage.”
As only damaged people can do, he says, the characters bring a certain amount of perspective—cynical, humorous and sarcastic.
Disher first saw the play performed in New York City. “The whole piece crackled,” he recalls. “I knew at some point I wanted to get my hands on it.” He acknowledged it would be an ambitious undertaking.
Deanna Dunagan originated the role of the family matriarch, Violet, during August: Osage County‘s premiere run in Chicago in 2007, and later that year she reprised Violet when the play had its Broadway debut. Dunagan won the Tony for best lead actress and was lauded by New York critics, Disher notes. When he saw the play, it was the first night that Estelle Parsons stepped into the role. “She was equally riveting,” he says. That proved to him that any woman with capable hands could succeed as Violet.
In the film adaptation released last year, Meryl Streep played Violet, while Julia Roberts was the eldest daughter, Barbara.
Despite the casting of the film, Disher says it does not compare to the play. “I don’t particularly care for it because it’s an incomplete version of August: Osage County,” he says. According to Disher, the parts of the story that were cut for time are integral to understanding the family.
In the role of Violet, Disher cast Linda McKnight, a Riverhead actress he worked with 13 years ago for the Tom Wolfe play Look Homeward, Angel at Southampton College. “She hit all the notes Ii hoped she would hit and landed the role,” Disher says.
For Barbara, he says the casting came as a surprise, not just to him but for the actress too, Bonnie Grice, who is best known on the East End as a radio host on WPPB 88.3 FM.
“Bonnie wanted to audition for one of the other sisters, and just as a fluke on the second day of auditions I had her read for Barbara,” he says. He paired Grice with John Leonard, in the role of Barbara’s husband. Once they read together, “that was it.”
“They looked like they’ve been married,” Disher says. “They looked like they could hate each other.”
The entire cast is a particularly strong group and August: Osage County will be one of the better shows that has been done on the East End in a long, long time, Disher assures. “It’s probably going to be one of the most surprising evenings that anyone could ask for in theater in region history.”
The production will also have the distinction of having the biggest set in the history of Disher’s Center Stage. August: Osage County takes place in a three-story house, which Disher admits is hard to pull off on the small Southampton Cultural Center stage. He built it with Sarah Moritz, and Mary Vienneau served as set dresser. The set uses layers of platforms to represent different rooms in the house. “Almost every room is played at a different height, a different level.”
In addition to McKnight, Leonard and Grice, rounding out the cast are Paul Consiglio, Samantha Honig, Joan Lyons, Joseph Marshall, Philip Reichert, Stephan Scheck, Emily Selyukova, Mark Strecker, Josephine Wallace and Edna Winston.
August: Osage County runs March 20 to April 6, Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. at the Southampton Cultural Center, 25 Pond Lane, Southampton. Admission is $22, or $12 for students under 21 with ID. Group rates are available. Call 631-287-4377 or visit scc-arts.org.