HART tackles 'Osage County'

Nov 05, 2012
Photo by: Stina Sieg Christy Bishop, left, and Barbara Bates Smith are two of the many HART veterans who make up the dysfunctional family in "August: Osage County." The show runs for two weeks at HART.

Haywood Arts Regional Theatre has a way of matching the time of year with the timing of its shows. In the heat of this summer, it presented the fun and feisty “La Cage aux Folles.” This December, it will be conjuring up the yuletide spirit early with

“A Christmas Carol.” And now, as Thanksgiving draws near, it’s introducing us to a clan with whom no one would want to share a long holiday meal.

To director Steve Lloyd, playwright Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County” isn’t your average drama about a family in crisis, but an epic one, done in the style of Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller.

“This will make everybody feel much better about their families on Thanksgiving,” Lloyd joked at a recent rehearsal.

To put it mildly, the fictional Weston family has problems, and they aren’t the kind that can be solved quickly or easily or perhaps at all. The family’s patriarch, strangely named Beverly, has gone missing, and that’s not the half of it. Drug addiction, depression, bad language — they’re all woven through the three-plus hours of this piece. Even so, it has a darkly comic side, which Lloyd fell in love with when he saw the meaty, well-written show on Broadway in 2007.

Letts knows how to use humor to disarm the audience, Lloyd explained, so it’s easy to get “seduced” by the characters. Then something will happen that will shock you and take your breath away, he continued.

“And it’s like you’ve been punched,” he said.

It sounds rough, but there’s pleasure in the pain. As Lloyd and so many other lovers of theater have found, this show can be a bit addictive.

“By the time you get to the end of it, you just can’t believe the roller coaster you’ve been on with these people,” he said. “And you’re ready to get back on it again.”

HART veteran Julie Kinter, who plays the oldest daughter in the family, is definitely enjoying the ride. As Barbara, she deals with her father’s disappearance the same way she’s working through her recent separation — by grasping for total control. In another play, this character might stand out as being particularly harsh or hard to handle, but in this show, she just seems like a Weston.

“Oh my gosh, this family is crazy,” Kinter said. “But it’s fun. It’s a fun crazy.”

The fun comes from the humor, which sucked her in even as she was first reading the play. It also helps round out the characters’ many, many rough edges. Kinter likes the fact that all these people get a chance to slightly endear themselves to the audience. They don’t become heroes, but they do become real human beings over the course of the show, with explanations for why they are the way they are.

“You can dig deep into these characters,” Kinter said. “We certainly have in this process.”

That “we” includes Barbara Bates Smith, who’s also been known to HART audiences for years. Though she’s usually touring with her one-woman shows, she made a point to stay off the road for this production. It’s just that good.

As Violet, she gets to be a drug-addled mama viper of a matriarch. She constantly spews venom and attacks everyone by the play’s end. Smith is loving it — even though part of her worries how that might sound.

“It’s embarrassingly exciting,” she admitted, grinning.

It’s also the most challenging role she’s ever done. She’s stretching herself wide and, like everyone in the show, she can only wonder how it will all be received. She hopes as audiences  leave the theater, they will take something from all this darkness of dysfunction. She certainly has.

“I think they can’t help but be excited and possibly shocked, stimulated …” she said, searching for just the right word. “Entertained. Entertained.”

Christy Bishop — also known as Ivy, the middle daughter, often forgotten by the family — sounded equally unsure about the show’s take-home message.

“What I’ve told my friends is it’s a really, really funny play until it’s not,” said the HART regular. “And then it’s really, really not funny.”

She’s spent months with these characters and still can’t gauge them completely. Who knows how their cacophony of idiosyncrasies will shake out for those who only get to meet them for a few hours. Bishop doesn’t.

“But you’ll leave thinking, ‘My family’s not so bad after all,’” she promised.

“August: Osage County” is playing at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, Nov. 9, 10, 16 and 17, and at 3 p.m. Sundays, Nov. 11 and 18. For tickets, call 456-6322 or visit www.harttheatre.com.