Dysfunction Junction

Dysfunction Junction Windy City theatre veteran Amy Morton explores the corrosive heart of the fractious family in August: Osage County.
Amy Morton in August: Osage County
Amy Morton in August: Osage County Photo by Joan Marcus

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Among the pill-popping, bed-hopping, cousin-kissing clan in Tracy Letts' dysfunctional family drama August: Osage County, Barbara, the eldest daughter of the warring Westons, stands as the character the audience seems to connect with most deeply with. Your affection for her is due in no small part to the prodigious talents of Amy Morton, who bagged Tony and Drama Desk nominations for her performance in the play.

As soon as the character barges on to the stage, you're instantly enraptured. She's whipsmart, savagely funny, and tough as sheetmetal. No matter what monkeywrench is being thrown her way — having to identify the decomposed corpse of her dead father, battling her vicious, Percoset-addled mother during the Family Dinner From Hell, or trying to make sense of her disintegrating marriage — Morton as Barbara is the picture of ferociously funny, steely-eyed determination.

The suburban Chicago-born-and-bred actress says that her own connection with the character was immediate. "The way her words fell out of my mouth felt really comfortable," she says. And what words they are. Morton gets to cuss up a storm and snarl such priceless gems as, "At least do me the courtesy of recognizing when I'm demeaning you," to the likes of her philandering husband.

Chatting with the affably sarcastic Morton in her dressing room at the Music Box Theatre, it's apparent that she shares more than a few traits in common with Barbara, among them acerbic humor, lacerating candidness and a take-no-prisoners disposition. She calls herself "a glass-half-empty kind of gal. . . . By the way, the glass is also chipped." She gleefully admits to "swearing like a truck driver." And she cops to identifying with Barbara's smart-alecky nature. "Tracy has called me a smart-ass many times in our relationship together," she says of the Chicago playwright and fellow Steppenwolf Theatre Company member she counts as one of her closest friends. Not for the faint of heart, the roller-coaster ride of August: Osage County — which captured both the Pulitzer Prize and a wheelbarrow full of Tonys, including Best Play — revolves around three generations of the Weston clan of Oklahoma and stands as a case study in the devastation that only intimate relatives can inflict upon one another. When the patriarch, an award-winning poet with suicidal tendencies, disappears one summer, his drug-hazed wife, Violet, beckons her brood back to the family homestead, where she proceeds to guilt-trip, manipulate and eviscerate them with zingers so corrosive the whole house seems to melt the minute she opens her mouth. "Hopefully watching the show makes you feel better about your family. But if it doesn't, I'm really sorry," says Morton with a lopsided grin.

It's up to the steely-eyed Barbara to right the ship, even if she risks transforming into her mother in the process. "Barbara has this great arc. She starts the play in a very precarious place. Her father is missing. Her marriage is on the rocks. That's a whole lot of meat right there, before you even utter a word. As the play progresses, the ground under her feet starts moving more and more, and she becomes less and less stable. It's really fun to walk in having your character expect one thing, and [then] something completely different happens. Plus, I get to be outrageous. I mean, who doesn't want to strangle their mother every once in a while?"

The hardest aspect of playing the role, Morton says, is remaining upright by the end of the taxing, three-hour-plus show. She's lost 15 pounds since coming to New York, and she now sees a chiropractor and a physical therapist once a week. "On two-show days, you just want to blow your brains out."

August actually marks Morton's second appearance on Broadway. Her debut came in 2001 as Nurse Ratched in a revival of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest opposite Gary Sinise. A longtime Chicago theatre actress, Morton joined the famed Steppenwolf Theatre Company more than a decade ago. She has also begun directing plays with increasing frequency, helming acclaimed productions of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta and Glengarry Glen Ross at Steppenwolf (both starring Letts). Still, she has no problem admitting that August probably marks the pinnacle of her career.

"It's like when you open up Long Day's Journey Into Night or some great American play, and you see the original cast listing, and you go, 'Wow, that must have been something.' I get to have my name in there! I'm never going to get a part like this again in my life. I mean this in the most positive way: It's all downhill from here."