Director Buz Davis recently gave me a tour of the set he designed for August: Osage County, the show he’s directing at Clifton Performance Theatre. When the production of Tracy Letts’ play, winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for best play in 2008, was announced, he was barraged with questions: “Obviously you’re doing this play someplace else, right?” “You’re not doing it in the basement, are you?”
The “basement” is a subterranean storefront, down a half-flight of steps from Clifton’s Ludlow Avenue. Once a bank branch, it’s the former location of Sitwells Coffee House. Today it’s home to Clifton Players and Untethered Theatre, performing for audiences of 50 or so.
The initial production of August: Osage County originated at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre before moving to Broadway in 2007. It was performed on an immense set, a cutaway view of a three-story farmhouse, the homestead of the play’s dysfunctional Weston family. In fact, that big set almost kept Davis from considering the show. He hadn’t seen it staged.
“Everyone who talked about it said, ‘Wow, that set,’” he says. “When I hear that, I think if you’re talking about the set, what does that say about the play?”
But all he had to do was read the script by Letts, who is also a member of Steppenwolf’s acting company.
“Once I read it, I loved it. It’s amazing, so dynamic for a long play. Letts is a wordsmith,” he says. “When actors write for other actors, you get such juicy words to speak. We really love that.”
Davis believed he could stage this show with nothing but folding chairs and black drapes and it would work. Letts’ play is so well written, he claims, it’s not dependent on the set. “But there is a sense that there is life in this house all the time, and things are happening away from the action. You can see them transpiring,” he says. “I took that on as a design challenge and tried to find a way to incorporate it.”
He likes to tell people that Clifton Performance Theatre’s back row “is closer than any other front row in town.”
“You can go anywhere and see August: Osage County with the cutaway doll’s house that’s the Weston home. Or you can come to Clifton and be surrounded by the Weston house,” he says.
Davis and members of the Clifton Performance Theatre have a passion for storefront theater. He cites playwright Arthur Miller’s explanation regarding why people react more viscerally to live theater than movies: You can see stage actors sweat; Miller said a good play lets a theatergoer feel part of the occasion rather than being an onlooker.
That will certainly be the case with this staging of August: Osage County. Step inside the intimate theater space, beneath a stolid apartment building, and you land on the farmhouse’s front porch. A living room with an old TV set is to the left, adjacent to a cramped dining room in one corner (with a kitchen visible through a doorway) and a cluttered study opposite. An elevated platform represents the house’s attic. About 40 audience seats will be in the middle of the room. Add in a cast of 13, and it will be tight and personal, a perfect way to tell this story of a dysfunctional, combative family.
It’s a big piece of theater, three acts that take nearly three hours to perform. But the story flies by.
“The three-act play is the strongest form for American drama,” Davis says. “And there’s no way to tell this story without a big cast. Audiences can relate to the many scenes in the show — like a cramped, contentious dinner with 11 argumentative relatives crowded around the table.”
There’s plenty of opportunity for people watching to be reminded of sibling rivalries, family secrets and old grudges that boil over in tense times.
Davis is also one of the actors. He plays the family’s father, Beverly Weston, a poet, age 69, stranded in desolate rural Oklahoma. Following a rambling opening monologue, he goes missing. His absence lights the fuse on this cantankerous family gathering, swirling around his venomous, pill-popping wife Violet, played by local stage veteran Dale Hodges.
He has a dream cast: Beyond Hodges and Davis, the company features an array of well-known local actors — Bob Allen, Carol Brammer, Carter Bratton, Kevin Crowley, Christine Dye, Mindy Heithaus, MaryKate Moran, Nathan Neorr, Leah Strasser and Reggie Willis.
I suggest squeezing into the Weston homestead sometime between now and March 14 for a memorable evening of theater.
CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]