Northwestern Press

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Pulitzer, Tony winner 'Osage' in LV debut at Civic Theatre

Wednesday, February 27, 2013 by PAUL WILLISTEIN Focus Editor in Focus

"We've been trying to do this play for years. But this is the first time we got the rights, which is ironic with the movie coming out this year," says Civic Theatre of Allentown Artistic Director William Sanders.

Sanders directs the Lehigh Valley premiere of "August: Osage County," opening March 1 and continuing March 2 and March 7 - 10, on Civic's main stage, 527 N. 19th St., Allentown.

The star-studded movie version, with Ewan McGregor, Julia Roberts, Benedict Cumberbatch, Meryl Streep, Dermont Mulroney, Abigail Breslin, Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis and Sam Shepard, opens this year.

The New York Times described the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and 2008 five Tony Awards-winning play by Tracy Letts as a "turbo-charged tragicomedy."

The play, premiering in 2007 at the Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago, debuted later that year on Broadway, closing in 2009.

"As soon as it closed, I was waiting patiently for the rights -- well, maybe not patiently. We kept announcing it, but kept get getting turned down," says Sanders.

Civic's production includes well-known Lehigh Valley thespians Becky Engborg, Bill Joachim, Kirk Lawrence, Gretchen Furst, Jan Labellarte, John Kuchar, Meggan Gomez, Merce Tonne, Meredith Lipson, Pat Kelly, Sue Sneeringer, Tom Onushco and Troy Brokenshire.

"We're very lucky with the people we got. It's an extraordinary challenge for actors. We had a lot of talented people audition," Sanders says.

The three-act play explores the dysfunctional Weston family, who reunite in Oklahoma following the mysterious disappearance of their patriarch.

"They put the 'dys' in dysfunctional," Sanders says of the family.

"As horrifying as their behavior can be -- and hilarious -- it's behavior that we can recognize in any of our family situations.

"It's set in Oklahoma because Oklahoma is the heartland and it's a metaphor for American. Many of the characters in the play have been displaced from other parts of the country before they return home and the father disappears."

One of the challenges for Sanders in directing the play was in "creating an atmosphere where the actors were free to explore and make a lot of discoveries on their own."

Rehearsals for the play, which was cast in December, began the first week in January. Generally, Civic's plays are rehearsed for six weeks. "August" was rehearsed for eight weeks to give the actors more time with the script.

"I felt that was important -- that they had time to live with it. I felt it was important they find the physical and emotional life of the play before we faced the technical aspects. We did a rehearsal in my house so that they didn't worry about where they were in terms of stage picture and the technical aspects."

The play's title is taken from a poem by Howard Starks, a friend of Letts.

"I don't think there's been many plays like it. It has the scope of playwrights like Eugene O'Neil, Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee.

Theater-goers who enjoy the rowdy character-driven plays of Sam Shepard should enjoy "August."

"It's been lauded as one of the best American plays in decades and I think that is true.

"There aren't a lot of plays done on Broadway anymore that are of this scope and of this variety. The last one that I can remember was 'Angels in America' [which Saunders directed at Civic in 1997]. There are tons of revivals.

'"It's epic in its size. It's a very long play, which I'm not afraid to say. And it's epic in its emotions. And the events of the play are constantly surprising and hilarious in a sick kind of way."

Because of the play's estimated three-hour plus run time, curtain is 7 p.m. at Civic.