Spending time with the highly educated, highly dysfunctional and just plain high members of the Weston family is no picnic. They pick at each others' wounds and inflict new ones with words of potentially mass destruction.
Yet John Shepard is thrilled to be keeping company with these clever forces of nature as he directs "August: Osage County" for The Rep, the professional company of Point Park University at Pittsburgh Playhouse.
As soon as the actor-director saw the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winning play on Broadway, he knew he wanted to be a part of it. "I fell in love with the play, but it's kind of weird because I feel like maybe a woman should be directing, because it's such a woman's play and Anna Shapiro directed it originally. But I think a male perspective is a good thing."
To prepare, he delved into the literary themes employed by playwright Tracy Letts, then went several steps deeper, talking to psychologists to explore an idea that came to him regarding the three sisters who return to their family home when their father goes missing.
"It's that the oldest child, depending on the gender, is a reflection of the same gender parent," he said. "The second child would be a reflection of the opposite parent, and the third child would be a reflection of the parents' relationship ... so we're sort of bringing that archetype to this, and I think it holds up. Barbara is her mother's daughter, Ivy is her father's daughter, and Karen is a crazy reflection of the dysfunction of the parents."
And what dysfunction!
Alcoholic dad Beverly has disappeared, leaving his pill-popping wife, Violet, to rail against the world and cut down anyone in her path -- her daughters, their families and one fiance, all occupying a large Oklahoma home. They have arrived to wait for word on their father and face mother's never-ending barbs.
Deanna Dunagan originated Violet and won a Tony on Broadway, where she was followed by Estelle Parsons, who played the role in the touring company that came to Pittsburgh two years ago. Meryl Streep will star in the "August: Osage County" movie for director John Wells. For his production, director Shepard picked veteran Pittsburgh actress Mary Rawson.
"When I did Willie [Loman, in 'Death of a Salesman'], Bob Miller, who directed it, said Willie was Arthur Miller's King Lear," said Mr. Shepard, whose acting credits include "American Buffalo" on Broadway. "This is her King Lear. I'm so glad Mary has an opportunity to do this. I've directed her before, and I knew she'd be great, but I held auditions for all the parts in this. She came in so prepared."
The dynamic of Violet and her daughters allowed him to explore another psychological precept, that relationship rules established early on continue to apply -- children may leave the nest and become accomplished adults, but when they return, everyone falls back into the way things were before they left.
"The other part of this you can't forget, these are incredibly literate people," he said. "Tracy Letts' father taught at Southeastern Oklahoma [State] University. Howard Starks, who wrote the poem 'August: Osage County,' also taught there, they were colleagues. This is a sort of autobiographical play that Tracy Letts wrote. So he's no stranger to academia and all of the politics of that. So some of the comedy comes out of the fact that you're seeing very literate, smart people behaving very badly."
Having a couple of weeks of table readings with his cast before run-throughs was not nearly enough to suit Mr. Shepard, who spent his summer in preparation and still hadn't had enough of exploring those psychological and what he called "literary tie-ins," such as T. S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men," Joseph Conrad's "The Heart of Darkness" and Dante's "Inferno."
When he first saw "August: Osage County," Mr. Shepard could picture himself in a role such as Charlie, Violet's genial brother-in-law. The former head of the Point Park theater department has been seen on local stages for The Rep (as Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman," he was named performer of the year by the Post-Gazette), Quantum, City, Pittsburgh Public and Pittsburgh Irish & Classical theaters
The offer to direct, though, energized him beyond his expectations.
"It's funny how certain things will inspire you, influence you as a director," said Mr. Shepard. "Sometimes for me it's something oral, sometimes it's visual, a painting. This one certainly it's the literary side of things that Letts is dealing with and the dynamic between these people."
It's not just references to other writers that have inspired Mr. Shepard. "It's written so, so well. So the highs of this experience have been hearing this brilliant cast say these words I've had in my head the past four months, and the lows are I wish we had more time."
There's a lot roiling under the roof of that big house, some of it funny, much of it related to Violet's outbursts. "She's at a point in her life when she thinks she can say whatever she wants," Mr. Shepard explained.
"I also thought when I saw it, so much of the comedy came out of thinking, 'Thank God that's not my family! I thought my family was bad enough; this takes the cake!' "
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960. First Published September 6, 2012 4:00 AM