"As the prostitute once said, 'It's not the work — it's the stairs!'"
That saucy little lament started off Elaine Stritch: At Liberty a few seasons back. Nowadays, it's A Rule To Live By for the inestimable Estelle Parsons, having inherited Deanna Dunagan's Tony-winning role of Violet Weston in Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize–winning August: Osage County — and thoroughly taken charge of it.
Charge she does, up and down the staircase of her rambling three-storied home outside Pawhuska, Oklahoma. Powered by painkillers for her mouth cancer, Violet is in the pain-inflicting business, spewing emotional violence on all of her immediate family for the lousy hand life has dealt her. She's the Tasmanian devil of matriarchs, deliciously malicious in her havoc, like a child ripping off doll heads.
According to the stage manager's calculator, her rampages entail 352 steps per performance — or 2,816 every week — or 11,264 every month. It's a dazzling high-wire act, even if you didn't know Parsons is "goin' to beat 60" at the age of 80! The actress, typically, shrugs off this feat. "I don't know anything I'm doing — I just go out there and go," she insists. "I am standing at the top, all drugged out in that first scene, and I think, 'The only way to get down is to fly,' so I run. I mean, what else can I do in my drugged state but fly down? So I fly. And, of course, it's not only what you see in the front. It's what you do in the back as well. You have to climb up the stairs backstage in order to get on the stairs onstage. I do a lot of wilderness hiking and canoeing, so climbing mountains is no different than going up and down stairs.
"Know what's truly funny? At the Music Box [Theatre], I go up three flights backstage to the greenroom for coffee every night, and when I get there, I'm huffing and puffing. But when I'm acting I can just run up those stairs and never be out of breath. Isn't it funny? It says something about acting. I'm so motivated, it's not like real life at all."
Impressive physicality aside, she has an almost heroic hammerlock on the role. "She is certainly giving a performance to remember," opined The New York Times' Charles Isherwood, "one that may prove to be a crowning moment in an illustrious career."
Parsons feels support on both sides of the footlights, from actors and audiences alike. "Honest to God, it's the most wonderful company in the world. Well, Steppenwolf is the only theatre I know that's run by actors. Heaven on earth!
"And that audience! Omigod! You know what's great? The audience is a palpable part of the evening — which is what you're always hoping for. As an actor in the theatre, you want the audience to be vitally, dynamically involved — and they are with this. It's not realistic. It's not naturalistic. It's just pure theatre…. The very first night I thought, 'Wow! This is like a wall of security — this audience energy. It's fabulous.' Every performance is different. That's why it might be possible to play it forever, whereas with ordinary plays four months is about as long as I can take it without sorta doubling back on 'What am I doing here?' I'm hoping they'll invite me to do the tour, because I love to tour. That's the plan in my head. It's starting in August 2009 in San Francisco. I just would really love to tour with it to see how it is in other cities. I love exploring."
This is not the first time Parsons has terrorized the American Southwest — it's just her first "in-house job." Forty-one years ago she copped an Oscar as Blanche Barrow, riding with "Bonnie and Clyde" when they cut a bloody swath through the Depression in Arthur Penn's iconic film. And, as if she needed further proof that she's doing the right play on Broadway, she found pictures of Bonnie and Clyde on the web "doing business" in the setting of August: Osage County. "There were some stolen cars exchanged in Pawhuska and some prescription medicine that had been bought for Bonnie there. It was kind of a peripheral connection, but isn't that incredible?"
Little things like that — plus 30 years of yoga and smart dieting — keep Parsons charging away on all cylinders, unlike her 68-year-old predecessor in the part: "Deanna said to me, 'Y'know, I'm only leaving because they won't let me do six a week.' So I immediately called the producers and my agent and said, 'What am I, some kind of lamb being led to the slaughter here that I'm expected to do eight when the woman who has been doing it says she can only do six?' But she's a very different person than me and probably not quite as strong. I have a 50 percent strain of Swedish peasant blood, not to mention that the other half is Old New England."