PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Deanna Dunagan

PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Deanna Dunagan Few New York theatregoers knew Deanna Dunagan before this season, but it's unlikely they'll forget her after witnessing her ferocious performance in August: Osage County.
Deanna Dunagan (seated) and Amy Morton in August: Osage County.
Deanna Dunagan (seated) and Amy Morton in August: Osage County.

Dunagan plays Weston family matriarch Violet Weston, as vicious and spiteful a personality to have strode the American stage since Martha "got the guests" in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and a woman as willfully medicated as Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey Into Night. No member of playwright Tracy Letts' sprawling family is spared Violet's Oklahoma plains-style wrath — an anger born of a cruel upbringing marked by abuse and privation, a long masochistic marriage to a drunkard husband, and, just perhaps, a thick black streak of capricious malevolence. Dunagan — born in Texas, not far from where the fictional Westons reside — has won three Joseph Jefferson Awards in her many years as a Chicago-based actress. This week, she won the Drama Desk Award for her performance in August, and she is nominated for a Tony Award. She spoke to Playbill.com about the chore and the glory that is the job of being Violet Weston eight times a week.

Playbill.com: Last fall, when August: Osage County was coming to New York, there was a long article in a Chicago paper about how the Chicago cast wasn't necessarily thrilled at the prospect of having to pick up and move to another city for an extended period of time. How do you feel now?
Deanna Dunagan: You know, that was sort of out of proportion. I was the most quoted about that. I had four or five interviews with [the reporter] from the Tribune and that last day he caught me in the middle of trying to clean out my closets for my subletters to come in. I had been doing a lot of doctors, because I was trying to get in shape to do this play. I had back problems and throat problems. I guess I was a little stressed thinking about leaving and what that entails. The run was advertised as a limited run, but we always understood that it would run longer. We had such faith in the play. We had to be prepared to be away from our homes for a long time and it was just very stressful. All of us have lived in Chicago — well, Jeff Perry lives in L.A. — but we have real homes there. But we never didn't want to bring the play. We always felt that this play needed a wider exposure and we were very happy we were going to be able to bring it to New York.

Playbill.com: How have you been holding up? The play is very rigorous.
DD: Yes it is. I have missed more shows with this play than I have ever missed in my life in 35 years of theatre. I can count on two hands the performances I've missed in 35 years. I've missed more with this show than any other show because of various ailments. It got that virus that was sweeping the country this past winter. It's a stomach virus that just flattens you. I missed three shows during that bout. I've had throat problems; I've had steroid shots. And I go to my chiropractor and my acupuncturist every week and I think that helps tremendously. I can't take pain medication. I have a stomach condition that doesn't allow me to take any painkillers. I can take a Tylenol.

Playbill.com: You're a very well-known actress in Chicago. How does it feel to be discovered anew in a different town?
DD: As Amy Morton says in the play, "It's surreal." It doesn't even feel like it's happening. Last night [at the Drama Desk Awards], I truly couldn't remember what I said when I made my little speech. I had things written down on a piece of paper and I skipped two full paragraphs. When I glanced down at the paper, I couldn't even read it. I was just so stunned. I just didn't think it would happen. I went back stage and I said to the producers, "Did I thank you? Did I mention you?" It was just an out-of-body experience. I get out there on the stage every night before hundreds of people and that's scary, but I don't have to make up my own words.

Playbill.com: You were born in Texas, and the play takes place in Oklahoma. Do you recognize the people in the play?
DD: Oh, sure. Absolutely. You know, my sister, who has a ranch in San Marcos, Texas, came to see the show and she said, "I know these people." I've never known a woman like Violet. Or maybe I have, but I never saw her in this mode — a woman who was addicted. I only saw this woman in her public persona, and not in private. And I understand from her grandchildren that she was very similar to Violet. But I do know the rest of the family. And I have a real advantage in that I know the idiom and the melody of the language. Playbill.com: I imagine you don't have to adjust your natural accent at all.
DD: No, I don't. Well, my family doesn't talk with quite that much accent. But I just use some of the people that I know who do talk that way, because there are plenty of them around.

Playbill.com: Your character has a lot of choice lines and scenes in this play. Do you have a particular favorite, one you enjoy playing?
DD: I love my scene with my daughter Sally [Murphy, who plays Ivy Weston] in the first act, when we're talking about what she needs to do to get a man. I love that scene. It is such a nice scene to play. And I love the scene with [the characters] Barbara and Bill at the table, when they get the history from me in the first act. The scene that is the rest of the cast's favorite — which is the dinner table scene — is so bloody hard. It just wipes me out. I don't dread it, but I have to steel myself for it every night.

Playbill.com: You kind of steer that scene with your bad behavior, don't you?
DD: I do. And vocally it's so demanding because of the rage when she stands up and excoriates her daughters. That's very difficult. I don't enjoy it. It's not fun, really, to be so mean. But once I get into it, Violet enjoys her victories. One of the things that's fun, vicariously, about Violet is she almost always wins. Amy [Morton] in some interview described Violet as a giant toddler who had to have her needs met. I thought that was so erudite.

Playbill.com: Has Tracy Letts been around much during the Broadway run?
DD: No, not much. He was there every day during our rehearsal in Chicago and every day during our rehearsal here. Until his father [Dennis Letts] was taken back to Tulsa, we saw him quite frequently. We saw him for the first time since his father passed yesterday.

Playbill.com: You are one of only two members of the cast who performed on stage with Dennis Letts. Was it hard to lose him?
DD: It was devastating. But it was devastating to all of us. Not just to those of us who were on stage with him. Because, in Chicago, we had a wonderful situation at the Steppenwolf Theatre. The green room area is on the same floor with the dressing room, so you're always in contact, on the way to the stage, with the people in the green room. And Dennis would hold court there every day. He was such a patriarch to the whole company. He was a brilliant man. He was a professor and teacher. He was so much fun to listen to. Did you see his performance?

Playbill.com: I did. I thought it was wonderful. He made such an impression in one scene.
DD: He was the real deal. Tracy's father just embodied that whole part of the country. He was giant.

Playbill.com: A lot has been written about how your character is based on Letts' grandmother. Did he let you in on any stories about her?
DD: No, he didn't. His mother, Billie, who is a novelist, she told me some things. She loaned me the diary of the young Violet, whose name was Virginia. I read Virginia's eighth and ninth-grade diary. The woman was a rural Oklahoma girl. She seemed incredibly normal. But the words, as mundane as they were, just lept off the page. She was so real. I took a lot of notes. I learned a lot about where she came from. She did not have an abusive childhood from what I can see. She had a hard life: they were poor. She was always talking about the hard work they had to do around the house. They did a lot of fishing. Their birthday presents that she listed were quite practical: underwear and lotion. It was a real insight into this girl who grew up to be what everyone in her family called a monster.