When I was cast in Tracy Lett’s “August: Osage County” in the role of Beverly Weston, my initial reaction was “Who needs to act?” —because the character was so similar to me.
Like Beverly, I am a rural plainsman (Kansas-educated, in my case), who became a college professor in the arts. And like Beverly, I have gone some years since last producing a major work in my field. We have both experienced personal and professional disappointments along the way, both have sought inspiration through means that were less than healthy, and both questioned the value of continuing on journeys whose endings are painfully obvious.
And yet, even as I made the joke, I knew our lives had been different—not least because of a happy marriage of 40 years, which supplied me enough contentment to last a lifetime, and enough conflict to know the contentment when I saw it. In addition, I had not risen so high as Beverly (hailed as one of the potentially great poets of his era), and, thus, never suffered the ignominy of falling so far.
What then could I bring to the role and take away from the play?
I’m most interested in the question of why people choose to hurt those who are most vulnerable to the pain they can inflict, and how they excuse themselves for inflicting the pain. My model was an administrator in a college where I taught. He left his position in the midst of a bitter dispute and—tenured with the department’s highest salary—spent the next dozen years doing as little work as possible, and doing as much as possible to demean his place of employment locally and nationally. Although he doubtless saw his actions as justified, I’ve always wondered if he wouldn’t have been happier practicing the artistic and scholarly skills he’d worked so hard to develop, which in turn would have greatly improved the workplace he spent so much energy denigrating.
Forgive the extended analogy, but this is what I see happening in the Weston family.
Beverly claims Violet “chooses the reality” of her addictions after sailing through a rehab session “clean as a whistle.” Her pills, unlike Beverly’s drinking, are less self-medication than a means of controlling others and excusing her cruelty. Even her foray into “black mollies” are a means of assuring herself that her husband is paying her the attention she felt her sister received from her parents (and her husband). The praise she pays to Ivy’s beauty and Barbara’s talent are only ways of denigrating their life choices. Mattie Fay is less subtle, belittling the son she had out of wedlock with her brother-in-law, while threatening retribution on her husband (who doubtless married her because of her pregnancy) for sins which he has not committed, but she has. Feeling her own family coming apart at the seams, Barbara choses to return to her mother’s house, not for comfort, but to assert a control she can’t manage in her own life. Karen disregards the evidence of her own eyes and leaves with the man who hit on her 14-year-old niece.
Perhaps because he is so close, Beverly raises more questions for me than answers: The book of poetry that made his reputation is dedicated to “My Violet.” Why did he stop writing? What was the “debris” he burned the night before he disappeared? Poetry or family secrets? Why did he prefer Berryman (a poet who committed suicide) to Eliot (who exercised his survival instinct), feeling a “greater affinity with the damaged.” He’d obviously chosen to commit suicide before he hired Johnna, but what he have gone through with it if Violet had called the motel on Sunday rather than Monday? Ivy believes Beverly won’t come back because her parents aren’t “trying” anymore. What was there between Beverly and Violet that made them continue to “try”? Did Beverly turn to Mattie Fay for consolation, or was it a continuation of his earlier attraction to her? Were there other women? Did he ever really care for his own daughters? Violet accuses Beverly of committing suicide to punish her by making her “responsible.” Is she right? To her, he was always “the smartest man in the room,” but never said anything to show it. What if he wasn’t?
I don’t expect to answer these questions with my performance, and I don’t expect the rest of the play to unravel the mystery either. I only hope to portray a character about whom the audience will want to have answers.
It’s the least the play deserves.
Richard is a Professor Emeritus of the University of Utah Theatre Department. He has directed 90-plus plays, including 14 for People Productions, Utah’s first African-American theatre. The company’s next production will be Melanie Marnich’s “These Shining Lives,” which follows “August: Osage County” in this space in October. He has acted in seven foreign countries and 10 states, and his roles include the title role in “Wallace” (Plan-B); Giles Corey in “The Crucible” (The Grand Theatre); has appeared in “Comedy of Errors,” “Macbeth,” and “Twelfth Night” (Salt Lake Shakespeare Company).