'August: Osage County'

Estelle Parsons dominates a family in ruins in 'August: Osage County'

VIOLET TENDENCIES: Estelle Parsons (with Angelica Torn) as the monstrous matriarch Violet Weston in "August: Osage County."
VIOLET TENDENCIES: Estelle Parsons (with Angelica Torn) as the monstrous matriarch Violet Weston in "August: Osage County." (Robert J. Saferstein)
By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 22, 2009

When mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy and, let me tell you, mama ain't happy in "August: Osage County," the Pulitzer Prize-winning play coming to the Kennedy Center for a month-long run starting Tuesday.

Mama in this case is Violet Weston, the tyrannical matriarch of a falling-apart Oklahoma family. She's addicted to pain pills, cruelty and loathing. She, her brood of three daughters and their affectless men are also shockingly funny.

Mama in this case is also Estelle Parsons, an actress who is giving one of the most memorable performances of her career. Parsons took over the role from Tony Award-winner Deanna Dunagan in 2008, when Parsons was 80. She has since given more than 600 performances (charging up and down the equivalent of 25 flights of steps in each), toured nationally with the production and turned 82 on Nov. 20. She is nothing less than "superb," according to the New York Times, and her vision of Violet "may prove to be a crowning moment to an illustrious career."

This is all the more remarkable when one considers that the 68-year-old Dunagan gave up the role because she found it too exhausting.

"When I wake up the next morning [after a performance], it's like I've been run over by a truck," Parsons said in a telephone interview last week, from her hotel room in Toronto, where the show was playing. "I find it hard to be so nasty in front of a crowd. I was brought up to be a good girl. . . . I find it a challenge to be hateful."

But Parsons is able to bring a certain tenderness to the role, said director Anna D. Shapiro, that leaves the audience equally fascinated and repelled.

"The thing about Estelle is that she can walk that line, when you're watching her, no matter how heinous her behavior, you kind of believe there might be a reason for it," Shapiro said. "She's unbelievably, effortlessly cruel."

Parsons loves the role -- it's big, meaty and "you can just whack away at it every night" -- and is signed up to tour through next May. She works out the performance stress at the gym (yoga, jogging), then gets in a sauna or steam bath each day and two massages per week.

She's never been a household name, although she has been a highly regarded presence onstage and in Hollywood for more than 40 years. A native of Marblehead, Mass., she had mostly done television work when she landed the role of Clyde Barrow's sister-in-law in the seminal "Bonnie and Clyde" in 1967. Cast alongside Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway and Gene Hackman, she was the one who walked off with the Oscar (for Best Supporting Actress).

It didn't launch her into the stratosphere of the rest of that cast, but she's worked steadily in film and television and onstage ever since. She was director of the Actors Studio for five years, played Beverly Harris on "Roseanne" during its run in the late 1980s and 1990s, and was featured in "Empire Falls" four years ago.

"August" is a three-hour, three-story bonfire of the American family gone to seed, the kind of play that people tend to say isn't written anymore. In the title, "August" represents the end of a brutal summer; "Osage" is the Cherokee name for the place; and "County" stands for the colonial settling of that land. The one sensible person in the play is a Cherokee woman, in need of a job, who takes on caretaker responsibilities for the household. The whites are, well, nuts.

The Weston clan is dominated by women. They are all funny, but none of them is kind, nurturing and warm. Barbara, Violet's most assertive daughter, is in the midst of a failing marriage. She physically clashes with her teenage daughter and enters into a scorching showdown with her mother.

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