August: Osage County and Specificity in Acting

As I write this, I’m within 24 hours of having seen Keegan Theatre’s production of modern classic (it’s not too soon for that label, is it?) August: Osage County.  It’s the second production I’ve seen after catching the original tour that came through the Kennedy Center a couple years ago, and the comparison made me think about some things which I’ll explore offhand here.

(Spoilers for the play ahead.)

I liked Keegan’s production plenty, but something that struck me is how much can be communicated, and thus can be lost, in the presence or absence of tiny details.  The couple years that had passed since my first viewing have not dulled my memory of some of the keenest details in the touring production.  There was the moment of shared genuine, beaming pride between matriarch Violet and her sister Mattie Fae (over some insult one of them had made) that breaks through their standard operating mode of glowering and condescension, and that established, in one silent moment, how much they mutually enable each other’s cruelties.  There was a moment in the office scene between the three Weston sisters where elder Barbara and middle child Ivy shared an eye-rolling, derisive glance at something moderately dimwitted that youngest sister Karen said, and which, again, in one silent moment, captured so much of their dynamic; I recall agreeing with the sisters in their reaction to what Karen said because it was a missing-the-point kind of thing for her to say, and at the same time understanding a great deal more why Karen is so desperate for validation and acceptance that she later allows herself to remain with child-molesting fiance Steve.  And there was a moment where Charlie, Mattie Fae’s husband, pretends to choke on his food at the dinner table, only to reveal he’s making a joke out of vegetarian Jean (Barbara’s teenage daughter)’s previous assertion that eating meat means ingesting that animal’s “fear;” in revealing his older-generation attitude towards Jean’s new-agey proclamation, more entertained by her naïveté than intolerant of it, his otherwise above-average gentle and understanding nature (compared to the rest of the family) was tempered and made more realistic.

All of that information from just those three little details.

Now, the script clearly provides the space for those moments to happen – but it doesn’t necessitate them, and the Keegan production did not have them.

Now, it is of course unfair to compare productions, particularly when one is a extremely seasoned long-running production on tour which I saw foremost, and the other is a lower-budget, less settled-in one; but I’m not trying to say that the Keegan version was bad in any way.  It’s just something I noticed, how much little details can have such profound character effect.

I did, by way of perhaps unfair comparison with the tour, find some of the actors’ characterizations lacking in depth.  To prove that I’m not hopelessly biased towards my original experience – the actors playing Johnna, Jean and Steve completely erased my memory of the original actors in those roles, and the actors playing Violet, Beverly and Sheriff Deon set up separate-but-equal impressions in my experience.  In fact, the actor who played Johnna provides a great example of the point I’m getting at.

Writing a play is a gamble.  Unlike with, say, making a movie, where the final result is carefully managed and then set in amber, a play is always living and thus always subject to being done wrong – or even just less right.  To a degree, a good script will always come through no matter if the performances are perfect or just slightly-less-than-perfect, but there is still something lost if the actors and director do not capture all the deep details.  The touring production of A:OC I saw spoke volumes in tiny, specific moments, each one adding a full layer onto its characters in a split second.  If I had seen the Keegan production alone, I would not have experience “as much” of the play’s world, or the characters’ depth; I would not have understood Karen as well, or Mattie Fae.  I would not have understood Little Charlie as well, who came off as a browbeaten sad sack with a heart in the Keegan production, but had an edge of suppressed intelligence as well in the tour.

And without the Keegan production, I would not have understood Johnna as well.  The actor playing her at Keegan was just as stoic as the one in the tour, but she added just a moment here or there of wide-eyed terror when faced with having to deal with the emotional fallout in the Weston house.  So whereas the tour’s Johnna seemed to me to be, while a wholly believable and decent person, just a little bit detached and even a touch depressed, Keegan’s Johnna suddenly seemed much more alive, normal and engaged, no longer keeping quiet because it was her magical-Native American nature or something, but because she recognized instantly that doing so was necessary for her to emotionally survive her tenure in the household and come out intact with the money she so matter-of-factly needs.

When writing plays myself, I worry about this kind of thing.  Not all actors are equal, or equally equal to any given role, or given equal chance by director or length of rehearsal time to delve as deep into any role they’re given.  Theoretically, if I write good enough scripts, it shouldn’t matter, but how much joy and potential connection to my work could be lost if my future actors do not find all those tiny details?  Note that those three I mentioned recalling from the touring production stood out for me not because they were absent in the Keegan production; they stood out in my memory already, on their own, and were each a stone in the foundation of my extremely pleasant experience.

Is there a threshold below which, if enough of the optional details like these have seeped out or not been found in a production, the production will cease to be a pleasant experience?  A:OC depends upon understanding that Violet’s cruelties come from her upbringing, her wounded love for her daughters, her self-loathing.  If an actress fails to find the many moments (as the one at Keegan did) where Violet is vulnerable, and just plays the harpy that the text minimally requires with one or two textually-necessary sad moments, would seeing that production be unsatisfying?

The script of A:OC, I noticed when seeing the Keegan production, is very nearly explicit about a lot of the important details.  You’d have to play actively against the text to avoid revealing that Karen is needy, that Ivy is weary and intelligent, that Barbara is struggling to not be her mother and failing, that Bill is unapologetic about cheating on Barbara.

I’m running out of steam here; as I said, this is pretty offhand, just trying to get down some thoughts I had about seeing the show.  I think the main crux of what I’m getting at is this: specificity is where a production crosses from enjoyable to loveable.  There were moments – very few, but there were some – in Keegan’s production that the actors played very generally and broadly, and that failed to be penetrative, believable or funny; if there had been more, the show may have ceased to be loveable.  As it was, I found myself loving and caring about certain characters more or less in relation to how much detail the actor demonstrated in them.  I suppose there’s a lesson there for actors and directors, but also one for myself as a playwright as well – make sure the minimum required by the text is sufficient for the play to be enjoyable.  It’s okay – perhaps even preferable – to leave the details that would make it loveable in between the lines as subtext, but ‘enjoyable’ is the minimum.

Thanks for reading, this was kind of rambling.  And I didn’t even talk about the thoughts I had after Keegan’s show about the nature of what makes ‘unlikeable’ characters likeable or compelling.  Stay tuned?

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One comment

  1. […] Pie Wrapped in Barb Wire” – Understanding Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me August: Osage County and Specificity in Acting Dirt by Bryony Lavery at Studio Theatre I Have Judged You For Not Liking […]

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