Capping off a season that explored "marginalized measures," the Collective Face Theatre Ensemble will stage the daring and hysterical 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “August: Osage County,” featuring the final performance of a Savannah theater icon.
Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County” has been on David I. L. Poole and Dandy Barrett’s bucket list for some time. When Poole moved to Savannah and into the local theater community, he realized he shared the desire to produce this show with many others in the scene. This year, the play fit nicely into the season’s theme and as a paragon of farewell shows for Barrett, one of the ensemble's charter members.
“Ever since I’ve come to Savannah, they’ve been talking about it,” Poole said. “Every incarnation had Dandy Barrett in the lead. OK, well, Dandy this is your last show. What a perfect show to end on. That was one of the decisions. I was looking for something to balance out the season. We had our musical for the year, our lighthearted, farce comedy and then we had more of a literary classic. I wanted to do something that was our Pulitzer Prize winner kind of show. This is the one. This is it. It deals with the marginalizing of people.”
After over a decade of work in the community, Barrett is returning to Connecticut to be closer to her family. For the Savannah stalwart, the role of Violet, the odious and acidic, pill-popping matriarch of the play’s Weston family, has been on her list for some time.
“I’ve found that in a decade here, I have not been able to get up there [Connecticut] as often as I would like to,” Barrett said. “Basically, because I got so very involved with the Collective Face Theatre Ensemble.
“This has been on my bucket list for a while,” Barrett continued. “I’ve had the good fortune to play a number of roles with the Collective Face that I have been able to kick off that bucket list. Not the least of which is “Suddenly Last Summer,” where I played another Violet. I’ve done a lot of work with the Collective Face and have enjoyed every moment of it.”
“August: Osage County” premiered at the infamous, award-winning Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago in June 2007. After the run ended in August, the play premiered on Broadway in December of the same year at the Imperial Theatre. It won five Tony Awards, three Drama Desk Awards, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2008.
The 2013 film adaptation garnered Meryl Streep (Violet) an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress and Julia Roberts (Barbara) an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress, despite mixed critical reviews.
At over three hours, “August: Osage County” is a full-throated piece of theatrical brilliance. A mixture of comedy and drama, it is a phenomenally well-crafted play influenced heavily by some of the greatest writers in modern theater. Letts, a veteran stage actor well-known for his leading role of George in the revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” draws from the works of Tennessee Williams, Sam Shepherd, Eugene O’Neill and Edward Albee, with a touch of Noel Coward farce.
“It’s incredible how great this play is,” Poole said. “The thing Tracey Letts did was to harp on on all the best writers. His favorite writers are all in this play. There are places it feels like an O’Neill play. Sometimes, it feels like Edward Albee play. Sometimes like a [Anton] Chekhov play. Sometimes it even feels like a Sam Shepherd play. It’s all the great authors and he put them in a blender. It’s amazing.”
Spurred by the disappearance of the patriarch, Beverly — played in the film by playwright and actor Sam Shepherd — the Weston family begins to converge on their Oklahoma homestead. Beverly’s death eventually brings everyone home for the funeral. Through loss, the family’s deep and often troubling secrets surface in both hysterical and painful ways.
“I would say that it is a dramedy,” Poole said. “It’s actually really hilarious. The problem was when they did the film adaptation of it, it wasn’t funny. The problem lies in that, in a film you don’t have audience reaction. Comedy only works, really, with reaction.”
“I think one of the bigger challenges is not to assume that this lady is the ugly, mean, nasty lady that she at first appears to be,” Barrett said of her character Violet. “She is a very complex woman with a very deep history. She’s lived a lot of years. She has grown up and seen a lot of sadness as well as a lot of joy. I think the challenge is to let the audience see the joy as well as the bitterness and the sarcasm.”
Joining Barrett is a venerable cast of Savannah actors. For the three Weston sisters, Karla Knudsen will play Barbara, Maggie Lee Hart will play Ivy and April S. Hayes will portray Karen. Savannah veteran Les Taylor plays Beverly, and rounding out the cast are Tim Ethridge (Bill Fordham), Anna Smith (Jean Fordham), Jacqueline Scott (Mattie Faye Aiken), Eric Salles (Charlie Aiken), Phillip John Trossarello Jr. (Little Charlie Aiken), Julie Roundtree (Johnna Montevata), Todd Eastman (Steve) and J. Frank Lynch (Sheriff Deon Gibeau).
“When I had chosen this play, I said, I have to get the best people possible,” Poole said. “... Some of the best actors I could find in the Savannah area are in this play.”
“I am so delighted with this cast, I cannot tell you,” Barrett said. “For one thing, we have powerhouse actresses and powerhouse actors in it. We are just loaded with talent in this show. One of the marks of a truly good actor is the fact that they give to you on stage. They look you in the eye and are in character and they’re responding to you. That is, sometimes, unusual to find.
“We have nothing but responsive actors,” Barrett continued. "There isn’t one on this stage that isn’t that kind of caring, giving person. And you know that if you stumble for some reason, you go blank on a sentence, you have a whole cast around you that is going to help you get through that. It gives you confidence on stage.”