August: Osage County

Bozeman Daily CHRONICLE

'August: Osage County,' Letts' black comedy an emotional test for actors

By Rachel Hergett, Get Out! Editor Posted: Friday, August 23, 2013 12:00 am

When Dee Dee Van Zyl enters the stage as Violet Weston in Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County,” she can barely speak, stumbling around the stage in a stupor.

“I’m just drugged out of my mind,” the actress said. “I don’t know how I go there, but I do.”

Weston, fighting off cancer of the mouth and addicted to a variety of drugs, has an argument with her husband who is in the midst of hiring help for the family before she storms off. Weeks later, her husband disappears.

“Saturday morning that girl — that Indian girl — made us biscuits and gravy and we ate some of it,” Violet says to her daughter and son-on-law who have gathered in support, trying to make sense of what may have happened. “He walked out the door... that door right there and that was it.”

Throughout the course of the play, Van Zyl’s character deals with her husband’s disappearance, the overwhelming grief when it is revealed he has committed suicide, her own cancer and drug addictions and the disturbing revealing of deep-seated family secrets.

“The level and range of emotions she has got to have are really pretty intimidating,” Van Zyl said.

To play the role, Van Zyl said she has relied on “everything: my entire 63 years of life, all my pain, my anger, my dysfunctions, my weird family and my weird self.”

According to Van Zyl, the hardest known roles for a female in the world of theater are Martha, whose marriage is falling apart around her in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and morphine- addicted Mary Tyrone in “Long Day’s Journey into Night.” She has played both women in her 40 year theater career.

“This may be harder,” she said of Violet.

The other actors — including Actors Theatre of Montana co-founder Cara Wilder, Rhonda Smith and Tom Morris of the Vigilante Theatre Company and Kent Davis, star of the last play at the Ellen, Mark Twain’s “Is He Dead?” — only add to the pressure.

“The cast is just brilliant,” Van Zyl said. “They’re right there with you.”

Van Zyl used to teach acting at Montana State University. If she were to give advice to someone else tackling Violet, it may sound like a bit of a warning.

“Get ready to dig really deep into yourself, into your heart, your humor and your brain,” she said. “It will take every bit of sadness and anger you’ve ever had.”

The Bozeman production of “August: Osage County” has been a long time coming. Read-throughs with slightly different casts took place in 2009 and 2011. Now, with the Christmas Day release of the movie adaptation starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts in the roles given here to Van Zyl and Wilder, the play will finally see the stage.

“I saw the play in 2008 on Broadway and it blew me away,” Wilder said. “It’s an incredible piece of writing. It’s very, very funny and very, very sad.”

Later, Wilder and Van Zyl saw it together in Ashland, Ore., as a possibility for the Actors Theatre of Montana.

“It was written by Tracy Letts for the Steppenwolf Theatre Company which has a lot of people in their 40s and 50s,” Wilder said. “Coincidentally, a lot of our people are that age.”

Despite a combined 300 years of stage experience, Letts’ play is no easy task for any of the actors, who have to dig deep within themselves to find some truth in the playwright’s words.

“The character arcs are expansive,” said director Will Dickerson. “Any false note and you would be able to see it.”

Though he is interested to see the Hollywood treatment of “August: Osage County,” Dickerson said he’s more than confident in his cast.

“Dee Dee will show Meryl Street how to do it,” he said.

“August: Osage County” won the Tony Award for best play in 2008 and garnered Letts a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It has been compared to the works of the great playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill and Sam Shepard. Still, Dickerson said it is very much a play for a post-9/11 age.

‘It’s a play of our time,” he explained. “Their relationship to the media and pop culture is our relationship.”

Amy Morton, who starred in the original Chicago and Broadway productions is known to have said anyone with a family will understand this play, according to Wilder.

“(The audience) will see a show of American life they will relate to,” she said. “It will allow them to laugh at things, and maybe even be touched by something they see on stage that is familiar. Maybe they will even feel better about their own families.”

Rachel Hergett may be reached at or 582-2603.