August stars Academy Award winner and multiple Tony Award nominee, Estelle Parsons in the role of the family matriarch, Violet. Ever a gay-favorite, Parsons played the larger than life role in the Broadway production to rave reviews from June 2008-May 2009 and is excited to return to St. Louis.
“I’m looking forward to being there,” Parsons told Vital VOICE. “I did a play there in probably 1980 or something—Miss Margarita’s Way.”
Joining Parsons are Shannon Cochran, Jon DeVries, Libby George, Stephen Riley Key, Emily Kinney, Laurence Lau, Marcus Nelson, Paul Vincent O’Connor, Jeff Still, DeLanna Studi, Angelica Torn, and Amy Warren.
Written by Tracy Letts and Directed by Anna D. Shapiro, August: Osage County tells the story of the Westons, a large extended clan that comes together at their rural Pawhuska, Oklahoma homestead after the alcoholic patriarch disappears. Forced to confront unspoken truths and astonishing secrets, the family must also contend with Violet, a pill-popping and deeply unsettled woman at the center of the storm.
Vital VOICE recently caught up with Parsons by telephone while the 82-year-old phenom was on tour in Chicago. Riding out the recent snow storm, she discussed everything from August and her character Violet to her iconic gay roles and going clubbing with Tennessee Williams:
Colin Murphy: How are you enjoying the touring experience?
Estelle Parsons: The tour is terrific. We started in Denver in July and then went up and down—or I should say down and up—the west coast. And then we went to the east coast and now we’re in Chicago and the Middle West.
It’s been terrific because the play is such a phenomenon, you know. It’s just enthusiastically received everywhere we go by the audiences and the critics—so it’s a delight to be a part of it. It’s really a gift to have a tour with a play that’s this interesting to people and this much fun for people.
CM: At 82—everyone marvels at your energy. How do you stay in shape?
EP: I’ve been very physically active all my life. Dance lessons, yoga, running, hiking. I would have loved to have been a skier or a tennis player if I weren’t an actor. I run or swim or go to the gym every day, and also do yoga. I started doing weights when I got into my 60s, but when you get into your 70s, if you don’t walk a mile for a couple of weeks, pretty soon its hard work to walk a mile. So I’ve always kept up with it.
CM: St. Louis gets most of the national Broadway musical tours but it’s a rare treat to have a current and award-winning Broadway play come to town. As an actress, is there special meaning in reaching audiences outside of New York?
EP: Well it has had meaning for me because so many people said you really have to take this around the country. But frankly I’d wanted to before then. I really like to tour, I really like to play all over the country. I’ve given a lot of thought to a National Theater, which of course is not even a possibility in a country as huge as ours.
But there are things, like this play, which reach everybody everywhere. But you really need some really good provocative material to reach everybody everywhere.
It doesn’t seem to fall into the category of plays where different regions react differently. Wherever we go the reaction is always unique—everybody is different—but also it’s always responded to. I guess everybody has relationships whether they like them or not—unless they are living in a cave. (And even then maybe they do.) So they jump right into the action the minute it begins.
CM: I’ve read that you were surprised when people suggested that you’d be perfect to play Violet?
EP: Isn’t it weird. I can’t imagine what on earth could be perfect about my playing Violet. [Laughs.] It’s very strange. But I realized that I’ve often played a drunk though I think this may be my first pill addict. I think it’s funny because I’m a very healthy person. But of course, I’m an actress. So I don’t know what it is—I guess the ability to be funny and serious—do tragic comedy, which is kind of what I do. A lot of people do tragedy, a lot of people do comedy but there’s kind of a small number of people who do both.
CM: Is playing such a toxic character demanding for you?
EP: Oh, it’s always very difficult, yes. I think it’s very difficult to play the drug scenes—they’re probably the most difficult. There’s so much wider range of things you have to think about if you’re some kind of an addict: the whole addiction thing, which is something you can just dwell on forever and the kind of behavior that that elicits. On “Pilled Up” they said there’s never a time when you see the real person underneath the addiction. She’s always on some level of pill taking. That’s what they told me when I started.
But it’s a beautifully written piece. All you really have to do is learn the lines and get out there and say them so everybody hears them and the piece works, which is great. And it’s so very, very funny which really surprises people a lot.
CM: Earlier you had mentioned that August: Osage County was a phenomenon and I’ve read where you’ve said that before, could you explain that a little bit more?
EP: Well most plays, they start and you maybe warm up the audience or people get used to them and they start responding. Or they don’t respond in any kind of dynamic way. But the minute this play starts they jump right into it.
It’s written in a very vivacious style—it’s hard to learn. The sentences don’t seem like sentences, they seem like utterances. And it’s very hard to learn and hard to execute. The stage managers have to keep reminding the actors to keep their own words out of it because it’s written in such a kind of stark and minimalist way that you’re always wanting to add an “a” or a “but” or a “well” to kind of make the thing work. But we have to be very strict about only saying what was on the paper because it was written in that kind of confrontational style. But the audience because of the way it is written—the audience jumps right in the minute it starts.
It’s very peculiar, except its theater. It’s purely theatrical—there’s not a literary vent to it in any way, which I find O’Neill and other people have some kind of literary form or vent to their plays. This just jumps right into it like Cabaret does or like television does. It jumps right into the action.
CM: Since you’re coming to St. Louis – I wanted to ask you about St. Louis’ own Tennessee Williams. He hated it here, but he’s our native son and we’re very proud of him. What was it like working with him?
EP: Oh he was wonderful—a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful man. He was so sensitive, so smart, so straight-out honest. You always knew precisely where you stood with him. He was a very compassionate, gentle, wonderful man and knew what he wrote about. He wasn’t one of these playwrights who disappeared or had no answers to things. He knew exactly what he was doing about everything and it was just a delight to ask him about something and really hear from him what it was all about. I don’t know anybody who wasn’t quite crazy about him.
CM: I read on Playbill that you went clubbing with Tennessee during out of town tryouts? That sounds like fun!
EP: Yes I did! That was in those awful-old-sixties-days, you know. We went to this place in Philadelphia where they had these open coffins and you would kind of stand or lean into these coffins.
CM: Oh my!
EP: Well it was the late sixties; everybody was doing really crazy things. I don’t know where on earth that place was. He was heavily into drinking, of course. I guess everybody in our crowd was at that time. I don’t know—we managed to work despite it.
CM: I would imagine you developed a lot of friendships early in your theatrical career with gay men. Are you aware of your gay fan base—you’ve got a pretty strong one.
EP: I didn’t know that!
CM: Well you know the gay community rewards artists who portray them in a very positive way. Your role in Rachel, Rachel was ground breaking. It was two years before the Stonewall Riots, three years before The Boys in the Band and you didn’t take the stereotypical slant and earned a lot of fans.
EP: I thought so at the time. People would come up to me and tell me that it meant something. And I give Paul [Newman] a lot of credit for that. You know Paul directed it. And he said to me early on, you have to think of this as just kissing her [Joanne Woodward] out of some kind of really exuberant love—don’t think about her being a lesbian. At the time I thought, why does he have to tell me what to do, I’d rather find it myself. But I think she was a wonderful character and I think it was wonderful that she could do that.
And then of course on Roseanne—all of a sudden my character came out on Roseanne.
CM: And that was equally historic for television. Moving on—you once toyed with the idea of going into politics, you’ve covered politics on the Today show…
EP: I was planning to do that when I went off to college. I was planning on going into politics—but I just didn’t find real life something I wanted to cope with. Ultimately when I was in law school, I thought, Oh my God—I can’t do this 24-hours a day. So I’m better off in the theater.
I started in community theater when I was six or seven so it was really the constant in my life, performing. And I have a good gift for it and I love using it. I have a real personal romance with the theater myself—it doesn’t extend to the mechanical media, but I do have a real romance.
And you know I also did the first movie by a black director: Melvin Van Peebles first movie [The Watermelon Man] in Hollywood with Godfrey Cambridge. At the time everybody said, oh don’t do that—it will be very bad for your career—don’t do that.
But I grew up in a small town in New England—and in New Hampshire where I still have a house—on their license plates they write, “Live Free or Die”. So my family has been in New England since 1632, but I come out of this tradition where you live your life and other people live their lives.
CM: And New England is where they are really embracing marriage equality.
EP: Yeah, I think there’s a real sense of each person takes personal responsibility. So it was a very homogenous town. I sometimes think that if a place is homogeneous it’s much easier to accept everybody and everything. I don’t know why, but a town like that gives you a lot of solidity in who you are—I’m talking about as you grow up.
But anyway it was interesting how everybody knew people of the same sex who were getting together and living together and so on. It’s like my family—we traveled with a couple of women when we went through the national parks. They were in their car and we got together along the way and we would travel to a lot of places together [Laughs]. And there was never any talk about it, if you know what I mean. We were just all people doing things together so I come out of a big tradition of that. And I refuse to be put in this category of someone who isn’t gonna to do something, “because of.”
Well I think personal responsibility is the thing. Why anybody cares—even about abortion—what someone does with his or her body is their own business and nobody elses. And of course I know tons of gay people in the theater. I have very close friends who are gay as well. And did even in college, as a matter of fact.
CM: Well thank you so much for talking to us. We’re really looking forward to August: Osage County. Again, it’s a real treat to have a Broadway play of this caliber.
EP: This was voted by Time the best play of the decade—and then other people were saying it’s the best play in 25-years. Its pure theater, that’s for sure and very accessible and very funny, which is what surprises people.
August: Osage County will play the Fabulous Fox Theatre March 2-14, 2010. Performances are Tuesday-Saturday evenings, 8 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m.; and Sunday March 7 at 7:30 p.m. There is also a weekday matinee on Thursday, March 11 at 1 p.m. Please visit www.fabulousfox.com for current pricing information. Tickets are available at the Fox Theatre box office and all Metrotix outlets or by phone at 314-534-1111.
By COLIN MURPHY – EDITOR