The age-old advice most frequently given to writers is to write what you know - and the one thing writers all have in common is that they all came from a family. Many classic plays have explored various family dynamics but few have dissected the relationship between mothers and daughters with quite as much flair and precision as "August: Osage County."
Kansas City, Mo. – Playwright Tracy Letts dug deep into his Oklahoma roots for his play "August: Osage County," and was rewarded for his efforts with the 2008 Tony for Best Play and that year's Pulitzer Prize.
Called a "savage comedy," it's set in the Weston family home, presently under siege by the chaotic reunion of three generations.
The family is headed up by Violet Weston, the wildly unstable matriarch (played by Merle Moores).
As much of the play is focused on Violet's impact on her three grown daughters, the three actresses playing them gathered before a recent rehearsal in the Kansas City Repertory Theatre's green room. Manon Halliburton plays Ivy, the middle child, and Jennifer Mays plays the youngest, Karen.
"It's a classic dysfunctional family, and it's sort of history repeating itself, these cyclical dysfunctional relationships that are sort of reliving themselves with the next generation," says Halliburton. "And with these sisters, we're trying to break free of that dysfunction, and set a new course for ourselves. And it's hard - these people have issues, to say the least, but they try their best with the tools that they have.
"And everything they do to break free from this dysfunction just creates more dysfunction in their own lives, as it always does," adds Mays.
As the conversation continues, it becomes clear that, in readying this intense play about an intense family, the actors are finding parts of their own pasts creeping into their work. Playing the oldest daughter, Barbara, is Cheryl Weaver.
"We've all had to discuss this in different ways. I recently had to put my mom in assisted living so I've been through a summer of groundwork, research for this role because she's ailing and ill," says Weaver. "This mother is ill by her own hand - mine is not - but there are a lot of similarities in the stubbornness and the unwillingness to yield and the specific way she treats the three daughters."
And Halliburton adds how her own history overlaps that of her character.
"I know in my own household, I grew up with an alcoholic parent. He could go to work, do his job, have everything in control, but the dark side was when he came home. Violet is similar to my dad. And so there's that part of it, which I relate to intensely," says Halliburton. "It's complicated. Sitting at that dinner table, it brings me right back to when I had those dinner moments. Like that...craziness."
"August: Osage County" Character Studies
That dinner table is where much of Act 2 unfolds, and where Violet, played by Merle Moores, unleashes one of her typical tirades:
Merle Moores, as Violet: "Do you know where your father lived from the age of 4 to about 10? Do you? In a Pontiac sedan, with his mother, his father. In a (bleep)in' car! Now what else you wanna say about your rotten childhood? That's the crux of the biscuit. We lived too hard and rose too high. We sacrificed everything and we did it all for you. Your father and I were the first in our families to go to high school, and he became an award-winning poet. You girls, given a college education, taken for granted no doubt, and where did you end up?"
Cheryl Weaver adds that, for all its high drama and broad comedy, the show is more than the sum of its parts.
"Yes, it's a family drama but it's so much more than that," says Weaver. "Clearly it is by virtue of the audience's response when it was in Chicago and New York - people came away profoundly moved. And yes, Arthur Miller can do that, several playwrights, but there's something about this. It's Shakespearean in its lift, and commedia in its depth. There are all kinds of things we have to fold into this stew before it's ready."
Before Artistic Director Eric Rosen came on board to lead up the Rep, local talent was often shut out of lead roles. But in "August: Osage County," all 13 roles are played by Kansas City actors.
Kansas City Repertory Theatre presents
"August: Osage County"
September 16 - October 9, 2011
4949 Cherry Street, KCMO
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