Monday, April 21, 2008

Moving day

Today is moving day for August: Osage County, so it's time to show my favorite Broadway play some more love. Not that I need an excuse, of course - I can never say enough good things about Tracy Letts' witty, acerbic, immensely entertaining work, and the amazing ensemble from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company that brings it to life.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning multigenerational family drama was performed for the final time yesterday at the 1,443-seat Imperial Theatre. The Imperial's next tenant, Billy Elliot, isn't moving in until the fall, but it apparently needs quite a bit of prep time. So, August: Osage County is packing up its mammoth three-story house of a set and relocating next door, to the cozier confines of the 1,009-seat Music Box, where it reopens on April 29.

Last night, I watched a discussion from February on the American Theatre Wing's Working in the Theatre program that featured August: Osage County cast members Amy Morton, Rondi Reed and Jeff Perry, along with Laurie Metcalf, a Steppenwolf ensemble member who's also on Broadway, as a presidential speechwriter in David Mamet's November.

It was really interesting to hear Perry, one of Steppenwolf's cofounders, talk about the company's humble beginnings. The nine actors who would become the Steppenwolf ensemble met through high school and college in Illinois. Their first home, in the summer of 1976, was the youth center of a church basement in a Chicago suburb.

In the early days, Reed recalled, when guest actors would come to Chicago to perform with Steppenwolf, they'd always tell ensemble members that they didn't need to go to New York or California to have a career, they could make theatre right at home. "So of course we, like idiots, took that to heart and ran with it."

While ensemble members have gone back and forth over the years for various movie, television and theatre projects, they've retained a sense of loyalty to Steppenwolf. "There's been such a complete esteem for each other's work," Morton says. "These are the people I always aspired to. it's been the work that's kept everyone together."

Metcalf, who has had numerous film and television roles, and won three Emmy awards for Roseanne, tries to return to Steppenwolf at least every two years. "I feel like I have to go back every so often to recharge,'' she said. "It's the only time working as an actor where you feel like you're in charge, you can lead the audience where you want them. It's a really powerful feeling. There's nothing else like it. Maybe we all gravitate back toward theatre because we started out in theatre, I'm not sure. But once you get that bug, it never leaves. And we're still going to be doing this forever."

Morton brings incredible emotional depth to the role of Barbara Fordham, the stressed out and overburdened eldest daughter of the Weston clan. She recalled the first time Letts gave her the script of August: Osage County to read. When she looked at the thickness of it, she was a little daunted - and dismayed. Her first thought was a kind of resigned, "God, Tracy." But when she finished, "I immediately called him and said this is the most amazing thing I've ever read."

Perry, who portrays Morton's philandering husband, Bill, says that director Anna D. Shapiro connected with the play in way that no other assignment had before, relating its characters to members of her own family. "And I think that's true in some ways with all of us. It's deeply satisfying family territory."

The only actor Letts had specifically in mind when he wrote the play was Reed. She's hilarious as Aunt Mattie Fae Aiken, especially in the scenes with Francis Guinan, who plays her husband, Charlie. But incredibly, she initially turned Letts down. "I thought, you know, this isn't me," Reed said. "Why does he want me to do this? I've done this role before." Then, in rehearsal, during one of the rants her character goes on, she stopped and said, "Oh, now I get it. Now I see why you want me to do this, because I'm perfect for it."

Reed also mentioned rumors about taking the play to London or the West Coast. (And, I'm happy to report, there are plans for a national tour beginning next fall). "The play will live on for a very, very, very long time," she said. "It's a great thing for the American theater to have a new play written by, directed by and acted by kind of all unknowns. It gives a lot of hope to the American theatre."

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