Utah theaters bringing dysfunctional family to life in ‘August: Osage County’

First Published Aug 14 2014 09:50AM      Last Updated Aug 14 2014 11:21 am

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dark comedy explodes as Daniel Torrence acts out a scene where two companies, Silver Summit Theatre Company and Utah Repertory Theater Company have assembled the production of "August: Osage County," Tracy Letts' Tony winning play, which was made into a film last year staring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. It's an ambitious show with a large cast of SLC's "all stars" and a big set, in a new theater space by two "emerging" companies.

Just consider "August: Osage County" an 80-dish play.

That’s an example offered by director Mark Fossen to illustrate the complications of mounting Tracy Letts’ darkly comic dramatic masterpiece.

One scene features a family dinner after the Weston family patriarch’s funeral where a few dishes are broken. As Fossen created the play’s prop list, he worked through staging issues.

The plates should be identical, so they would break the same at every performance. "So three a night, plus rehearsal runs, plus some tests as we work out the safety issues, plus a meal which has settings for 11, and another meal of pie in the first act — and the order finally came up to 70-80 dishes," Fossen says. "My jaw sort of dropped when I saw that and thought, ‘Really? I am doing a play where we need 80 dishes? That can’t be right, can it?’ "


‘August: Osage County’

Tracy Letts’ Tony- and Pulitzer-winning play will receive its Utah premiere at a new performing arts venue.

When » Previews Thursday, Aug. 14, 7:30 p.m.; plays Fridays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m.; through Aug. 31; with additional matinee Saturday, Aug. 23, 2 p.m.

Where » Sugar Space Warehouse Theatre / River District, 130 S. 800 West, Salt Lake City

Tickets » $18 in advance, $20 at the door ($11 students with ID); silversummittheatre.org or utahrep.org/tickets

Also » Two-for-one tickets available for the preview show (place two tickets in the cart and use “preview” code to receive second ticket free). Also pay-what-you-may admission at the door for the Aug. 23 matinee.

Cast » Directed by Mark Fossen, with Teresa Sanderson as Violet Weston and April Fossen as Barbara Fordham, along with Daniel Beecher, Anne Louise Brings, Sallie Cooper, Joe Crnich, Stein Erickson, April Fossen, Tamara Howell, Melanie Nelson, Michele Rideout, Richard Scharine, Allen Smith and Daniel Torrence.

In the playwright’s words

While it’s rarely a simple matter to pinpoint the precise inspiration for a new play, the genesis of “August: Osage County” can be traced to my deliberate desire to write for an extant acting ensemble — in this case, Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The hope of any playwright is that he or she can, through narrative, tap into universal themes. My first goal was to construct a narrative that holds a bushel of interest and a kernel of truth for the actors of this ensemble.

When reviewing the biographies of the actors who comprise Steppenwolf, I was struck by a nearly common denominator: place of birth. From Lincoln, Illinois, to Council Bluffs, Iowa, from Mankato, Minnesota, to my hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, the majority of ensemble members are small-town Midwestern people. Their stories are my stories. We share the history of families — mainly descendants of Irish or German or Dutch homesteaders — who forged their ethos from hardscrabble Depression years through the Baby Boom. We share the multigenerational conflict that inevitably arises when Those Who Have Nothing have willed their pride and guilt to Those Who Have Wanted for Nothing. “August: Osage County” is my attempt to explore this generational schism and the Midwestern sensibility with an ensemble of like-minded artists.

From the Steppenwolf Theatre Company website

So, the show’s run requires 80 dishes. It also requires a 13-member cast and the construction of a three-story set, which required its own $5,000 Kickstarter campaign. Ambitious isn’t a big enough word: "It’s a huge undertaking," says Michele Rideout, of Silver Summit Theatre Company, one of the co-producers, who is also playing Ivy, the Weston daughter who has stayed home to take care of her aging parents. "The set alone is a monster to create."

Yet perhaps a more core issue is the dark nature of Letts’ story exploring family secrets, excavating such issues as suicide, infidelity, incest, alcoholism and prescription drug abuse. Not every Utah theatergoer would be interested in seeing those kinds of family values onstage, particularly during the dog days of summer. Last year’s film adaptation might have earned Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts Oscar nominations, but it gathered mixed reviews from critics, including The Tribune’s Sean P. Means, who considered it "an overcooked potboiler."

Now consider the communication challenges of two fledgling theater companies — Silver Summit and Utah Rep, both working on shoestring budgets — co-producing the show for an Aug. 15-31 run.

And there’s this: The production is being mounted at a new offshoot of Sugar Space, and during rehearsals the performing-arts venue was still being carved out of a west Salt Lake City warehouse. On top of that, there’s a set to finish. "It’s hard to time entrances with stairs you haven’t seen," is the way Teresa Sanderson explains it just five rehearsals before she opens as matriarch Violent Weston.

The backstory of this regional premiere, as well as the strength of its "dream cast" of locally based actors, is creating buzz in the local arts world.

Seeing Sanderson in such a tour-de-force role is one of the draws, as she just finished a headline-making run as Martha in a rare local production of Edward Albee’s "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Another attraction might be the directing of Fossen, who is earning a local reputation for his skillful handling of classic plays.

And then attention must be paid to the story, "presided over by a mother whose cancer of the mouth is both literal and figurative," as Alex Witchel wrote in The New York Times earlier this year. "August: Osage County" earned critical and popular acclaim in its 2007 Chicago and 2008 Broadway runs, racking up a Pulitzer and five Tonys, even before last year’s Hollywood treatment.

Aside from that pedigree, Fossen underscores the show’s dark humor in depicting such severely flawed characters. Violet, he says, is both a wonderful mother and a monster. "A lot of the play comes across as vicious attacks on each other — and they are horrible — but it’s also completely hilarious when it’s not your family," Fossen says.

It’s rare for such a well-reviewed play to have its Utah premiere by a small company and featuring an all-local cast, and it’s that combination that’s sparking interest, says April Fossen, who is being directed by her husband in playing Barbara Weston Fordham, the Julia Roberts role.

Her character spends the play sparring with her mother. "It’s a beast of a play," she says. "It’s just so huge in terms of the story that is being told, and the way that story is being told. And that burden is on Teresa, specifically, and me, to a certain aspect."

The script was clearly written by an actor, the director says, because of the careful way it is constructed, in its rhythms and its pairing of scenes, huge moments of noise followed by a quiet scene. "Everybody has time to change their costumes," Fossen says. "This guy knows what happens in a theater."

Speaking of what happens in a theater, Fossen admits to the challenges of mounting "August: Osage County," even under the best of circumstances. "We’re all a bit crazy for trying to pull it off," he says. "But you know, that’s sometimes when the best things happen."



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