Dysfunctional families are a bottomless well of inspiration for playwrights, and one of the most over-the-top dysfunctional in the modern dramatic canon is Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County. Originally developed as an ensemble piece for the Steppenwolf Theatre’s resident company, it opened in Chicago in 2007 and ran for two months before moving to Broadway for a very successful year-and-a-half stint. Called “the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years” by The New York Times, it garnered universal critical acclaim, along with the 2008 Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
With three full acts plus a prologue, August: Osage County is also quite a long play, and as such is rarely performed by small community theater companies. Christine Crawfis, who is directing the County Players production opening at the Falls Theatre in Wappingers Falls this Friday, calls the undertaking “very ambitious. It’s the first time a mid-Hudson Valley company has taken it on…. You’re not going to get too many opportunities to see it played live.”
Across the river, the New Paltz-based Crawfis has long been known for her leadership of the Mohonk Mountain Stage Company and her recent stint as executive director of the Unison Arts & Learning Center. She has directed productions for the County Players since 2006 – August: Osage County will be her fifth – and deepened her involvement with the 58-year-old company by joining its Board of Directors in 2014. Though a bit off the radar for many Ulster County theater fans, the County Players were “voted Best Community Theater in the Best of the Hudson Valley awards 11 times in the last 15 or 16 years, including last year,” Crawfis points out.
“This is a play I’ve wanted to direct for a long time,” she says of August: Osage County, which she characterizes as a dark comedy. “It has big themes, huge sets… It’s tightly written and the relationships are really-well developed. We recognize ourselves in the characters. There’s this big family dinner that turns disastrous; we’ve all been at that dinner. The play allows us to laugh at that. It’s incredibly cathartic. It deals with taboo, difficult, challenging topics, but we find them amusing in their humanity. The play enables us to talk about them.”
Crawfis speaks enthusiastically about the troupe of “wonderful actors and designers” who have come together for this production. “These are people who enjoy working together,” she says. “We’ve set the bar pretty high, so everybody else has to step up their game.”
One of those highly professional participants is another institution of the Ulster County arts world: Ann Citron, executive director of the Rosendale Theatre Collective. “I’ve directed Ann in staged readings before, but never in a fully staged piece,” says Crawfis. “It’s really a treat.”
Originally trained as an actor, Citron hasn’t had many chances to exercise those particular artistic muscles in recent years. “It was not hard getting back into the saddle,” she says. “I’ve mostly been directing and teaching, but all lessons apply. Now I’m living them in real time…. It’s so enlivening to immerse myself as an actor again.” The opportunity that enticed Citron back onstage to act was what she calls “the role of a lifetime for me”: being cast as Violet, the drug-addled dying matriarch of the Weston clan (and the role played by Meryl Streep in the recent cinematic version of August: Osage County).
Citron praises Crawfis’ thorough, diligent approach to the play, noting that the cast spend the first couple of weeks of rehearsals just doing table readings. “We went in depth with the characters, created a life for them and a history. I’m so grateful for that extra time that we spent. They’re complex people who need to have a life beyond the script.” As of presstime the cast had begun to coordinate their performances with the technical crew. “That’s when the true communal art starts to take place,” Citron says. “The timing starts to crackle.”
The cast also includes Jeffery Battersby, Kristin Battersby, MaryBeth Boylan, Michael J. Frohnhoefer, Sarah Gabrielli, Jim Granger, Lissy Kilman, Janet E. Nurre, Anna Marie Paolercio, David J. Ringwood, Ben Seibert and Douglas Woolley.
August: Osage County runs for three weekends at the County Players Falls Theatre, which is located at 2681 West Main Street in Wappingers Falls.
Performances begin at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, February 5, 6, 12, 13, 19 and 20, with a single 2 p.m. Sunday matinée on February 14. Tickets cost $17 for adults and $14 for seniors and children under 12 (although parents are cautioned that the adult subject matter of the play is considered “not suitable for young audience members”). Also, audiences are advised that the Falls Theatre, with three flights of steps to enter, is currently not wheelchair-accessible. To order tickets, call the box office at (845) 298-1491 or visit www.countyplayers.org.