An ‘August’ role
She may be venomous and nasty, but Estelle Parsons has found playing Violet Weston in the acclaimed “August: Osage County” to be a revelatory dream.
By Naila Francis
Yes, the role was first suggested to her by friends.
But upon doing a little more research, Estelle Parsons found even more reasons to sign on to play the pill-popping, chain-smoking, vitriolic Violet Weston in the Tony Award-winning play “August: Osage County.”
“I was interested because they said it was the No. 1 show, the best play in 10 years, the best play in 25 years … I thought I ought to give it a try,” she says. “I always like to be No. 1. When they said to me, ‘You want to go on “Roseanne”? It’s the No. 1 show,’ I said, ‘Sure,’ even though I had never seen it.”
But the veteran actress, perhaps best known for her Academy Award-winning turn in the film “Bonnie and Clyde” and for playing Roseanne’s mother, Beverly Harris, for 10 years on the popular sitcom, would have her own first with which to contend.
The reason Rondi Reed and Laurie Metcalf, fellow alumnae of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, where “August: Osage County” had its world premiere in 2007, suggested that she take on the toxic matriarch of the supremely dysfunctional Weston clan was because Deanna Dunagan, who had originated the role, was stepping down. (Reed herself had won a Tony for originating the role of Mattie Fae Aiken, Violet’s sister, in the play, and Metcalf, in addition to working with Parsons at Steppenwolf, had been one of her co-stars on “Roseanne.”)
“I’ve never played second fiddle,” says Parsons. “I always originated parts for people and so to replace the original … for me, it was a new experience not creating a role but just following along in it.”
But if ever there were a role to take over, Violet Weston was it. After playing the character on Broadway for a year, the 82-year-old Parsons has reprised it for the national tour, which stops at the Forrest Theatre in Philadelphia beginning Tuesday for a six-day run.
“The work is terribly exciting. I’m so grateful to have had this opportunity,” she says. “It’s just unbelievable the effect this play has on audiences and their wide-open responses to it; it’s just a dream come true for actors.”
“August: Osage County” is Tracy Letts’ gripping 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning saga of the Westons, an extended clan who comes together at their rural Oklahoma homestead after the alcoholic patriarch goes missing. Once there, with the excoriating Violet at the helm of the kind of everyday brutality that has become painfully familiar, the family is forced to confront unspoken truths and shattering secrets.
Hailed by many critics as the best new American play to hit Broadway in years, the production, in addition to winning a 2008 Tony Award for Best Play, also snagged the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play among a host of other honors.
For Parsons, who has never done a play for more than four months, her role has been boundlessly fascinating, both her character and the play itself constantly surprising her with new layers to explore.
“I just really didn’t know what it was when I started, which is always good with plays. You have to delve into them a bit to really find out what they are,” she says. “I certainly had no idea it would be so endlessly interesting. Usually, there’s a finite thing about characters, but not with this. It just goes on forever. I’m still discovering new things.
“Sometimes I think it’s (a play) about drugs and manipulation, sometimes I think it’s about mourning and loss and different ways of expressing that. I go up and down and just when I think I’ve got it, three days later, I think, ‘Here’s something else that’s new.’ ”
She admits she did have her initial reservations about inhabiting the tortured and cruel Violet, especially given all indications that she should be played as a monster. While the character indeed appears villainous — “My momma was a nasty, mean old lady. I suppose that’s where I get it from,” Violet offers in her own words — Parsons has always been drawn to the humanity of her characters.
“She’s a human being with all the things that all other human beings have and, unfortunately, an addictive personality. She’s had a really terrible life,” she says. “I don’t know how you play a monster in a play about human beings. Sometimes I wonder if I’m too vulnerable, but I can’t do anything about it.”
Yet even she can’t help acknowledging that there is little to like about Violet, or anyone else in the play for that matter. But Parsons is used to not being liked.
“After ‘Bonnie and Clyde,’ people would come up to me on the street and say, ‘I hate you. I hate you,’ ” she says, of playing Blanche Barrow, Clyde’s sister-in-law in the iconic 1967 film. “In Tracy’s plays, it’s a very big mistake to want to like the characters. He just doesn’t write likable people or nice people.”
Still, while the play, in a reception that has varied from city to city and audience to audience, has been known to generate its share of stunned silences, its savagery hasn’t kept audiences from uproarious laughter.
“(Letts) calls it a drama but I don’t know how he can call it a drama. I’ve never been part of a drama where people are laughing from the start,” says Parsons, who made her Broadway debut in “Happy Hunting” with Ethel Merman in 1965 and has appeared on Broadway more than a dozen times since, receiving Tony nominations for several roles, including playing the titular character in “And Miss Reardon Drinks A Little,” Paul Zindel’s 1971 play.
“I think that comedy is very often based on terrible things,” she says. “I’m a comedian and most people who I know who do comedy just love disaster. They laugh louder and longer at disaster than anything else.
“This play is terribly horrible and terribly funny. In that way, it’s kind of grotesque, but (Letts’) idea of drama is not what a lot of us might think a drama is. He does mean for it to get laughs.”
She muses that because the story of the Westons is so profoundly disturbing, perhaps the only way that audiences can live through it is to laugh. Even Parsons herself has to be cautious about the effect playing Violet may have on her. She has found herself being nastier than usual in her personal life on occasion, and says she avoids making phone calls prior to going onstage and will give herself a time out in situations where she may feel a bit of Violet bubbling to the surface.
But as to the rigors of the role — which in addition to the play’s many screaming rampages include navigating the three-story dollhouse of a set and performing the three-and-a-half hour show up to eight times a week — Parsons brushes off any intimation that she seems to be handling them well, for her age. A self-proclaimed fitness buff, she regularly bike rides, lifts weights, swims, hikes and does yoga. And so while Dunagan cited exhaustion as her reason for leaving the Broadway production, Parsons is reveling in the show’s physical and emotional demands.
“It’s unfortunate that the woman who played it before me was sort of a fragile woman. I think most actors or at least New York actors are in good shape and unless you have bad knees,” she says, “you can do it.”
– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer