Much of the pre-opening press about the cast of August: Osage County centered on Deanna Dunagan, who plays Violet, the vicious matriarch of the triple-decker Tracy Letts drama about three dysfunctional generations of a small-town Oklahoma family.
But Amy Morton, who plays Violet's strongest daughter, Barbara, is actually on stage more and tracks the more expansive character arc. Over three and a half hours, we watch her comfort her mother, then challenge her, outright attack her, verge on becoming her and then abandon her altogether, all while putting out sundry immediate and extended familial fires. Barbara is played by Amy Morton, one of the most dominant actresses and directors in her hometown of Chicago, but a talent almost unknown in New York. Morton mustered up the energy to talk to Playbill.com about the show that has been a thrilling and exhausting experience for her.
Playbill.com: Is this the biggest acting assignment you've ever had?
Amy Morton: Uh, yeah, this being a three-act play (Laughs), this is probably the most time I've been on stage.
Playbill.com: Have you ever been in one of Tracy Letts' plays before?
AM: No. I've been in quite a few shows with him as an actor, and I've directed him. Playbill.com: When you read the play, did it come as a surprise to you, knowing his previous work?
AM: The breadth of it came as a surprise to me, meaning the size. That many characters, that many generations, that big a set, yeah. I had no idea that was what he was working on. It didn't surprise me it was as good as it was.
Playbill.com: Are you from the Midwest?
AM: Yes, I grew up in a suburb of Chicago.
Playbill.com: I grew up in Wisconsin. When I was watching the play, even though the action takes place in Oklahoma, I recognized many of the attitudes of the characters and the family dynamics and behavior. Did any of the writing speak to you of your own experience growing up?
AM: Absolutely. It was interesting. Most of the cast members of this play come from small towns. All of us in the original Chicago production were from the Midwest. In the New York production, all but two are from the Midwest. And it's a very Midwestern tale. (Laughs.) I don't mean because it's got sensationalism or any of that stuff — the huge surprises you find in the play. I think it's stoicism, its pent-up pain — it's certainly Midwestern.
Playbill.com: Letts has mentioned quite a lot that the character of Violet is based on his own grandmother. Has he said that your character is based on anyone in particular?
AM: I think my character is an amalgamation of a few people in his family, but not specifically just one.
Playbill.com: Your character has an incredible arc in the play. What was the hardest part of achieving that journey?
AM: Stamina. Building up the stamina. Physical and emotional. It's a long haul and it's a tough uphill slog. It takes a while for your emotional muscle and your physical muscle to be able to withstand the whole three hours and 20 minutes. I remember during the previews in Chicago thinking, "Oh my God, it's the third act and I can't act anymore."
Playbill.com: You were out of acting!
AM: That took a little while. But the great thing about the play is it doesn't require a lot a preparation, emotionally or anything like that. It's written so well, you just get on the ride and there it goes.
Playbill.com: What's the most difficult scene for you?
AM: No particular scene. It's jumping up and yelling as much as I do. You see, your body doesn't know you're lying. At the end of the show, the next day you wake up and feel a little bit like a cripple, because as far as your body's concerned, it thinks you're in trauma eight times a week. So, I'm sure the show has taken a number of years off my life, but that's OK.
Playbill.com: Is there a scene in the play that is the most fun for you?
AM: Well, certainly the scene where I say, "Eat your fish, bitch!" That's a fun scene. I get to get away with murder. It's just fun.
Playbill.com: Do you take your days pretty easy to rest up?
AM: Yeah. I really can't do much. It's just too hard to do. I had all these fantasies that "During the day, I'll go to the museum and blah, blah, blah." That's not happened so much.