Image courtesy of Bainbridge Performing Arts | The cast of Bainbridge Performing Arts’ production of “August: Osage County,” opening Friday, March 17.

Grimly grinning: Rivalries, secrets swelter among the Westons in ‘August: Osage County’

When Violet, the morose and spiteful matriarch of the Weston family (think a darker, more cynical Dorothy Parker with a pill habit) talks about the problems with the foundation she is seemingly referring only to the basement of the dreary Oklahoma homestead she shared, until very recently, with her now-missing husband.

But there’s something deeply wrong in the base framework of the Westons’ familial relations as well, something that can’t be talked out, ignored or improved with time.

So when Beverly, the drunken has-been poet patriarch, vanishes and all the kids come home to be with mom while the cops look into it, tensions rise faster than the sizzling summer temperature in “August: Osage County.”

The darkly humorous Pulitzer and Tony-winning play by Tracy Letts will live and breathe — and argue and scheme — again on the Bainbridge Performing Arts stage this month, starting with a pay-what-you-can preview at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 16.

Many are probably more familiar with the film adaptation than the play itself. How could you not be with such a spectacular cast of award-bait actors in the mix? Julia Roberts, Sam Shepard, Juliette Lewis, Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Margo Martindale and no less than Meryl Streep herself grace the credits scroll. Awesome as the actors were, though, many still said that something was missing from the movie version: the humor.

“It’s not funny,” Kate Carruthers, who helms the BPA production, said of the film. “People call this a ‘terrible drama.’ It is powerful, but it’s also incredibly funny. It’s epically funny, shocking and fun. It’s hilariously funny sometimes — until you realize what you’re laughing at.”

Cast member Pete Benson agreed, and said things that may not be funny in real life can become comedy through the communal experience of the theater, something a film, even one seen in the cinema, cannot offer.

“When you’re watching a movie, you’re detached,” he said. “When you’re in theater, you’re there and the uncomfortableness of the tension makes you break it and want to laugh.”

Carruthers is an icon in the world of regional theater. She was named 2017 Island Treasure and received “Best Director of a Play” and “Best Play” (“Amadeus”) prizes in the 2016 Broadway World Seattle Awards. Under her direction, “Amadeus” was also named “Best Play” in the South Sound Critics Association’s Best Of The 2015–16 Theater Season.

Her previous BPA directing credits include “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Snow Falling on Cedars,” “The Kentucky Cycle,” “Distracted,” “Private Eyes” and “The Grapes of Wrath,” among others.

She leads a cast that includes several well-known Bainbridge thespians and also some newer faces, including Gianni Truzzi, Barbara Deering, Ann Ellis, Melissa Fenwick, Carrie Morgan, Jennifer Pippin-Montanez, McKenna Sanford, Kalea Salvador, Wayne Purves, Benson, Geoff Schmidt, Geoff Finney and Rob Burke.

Missing from the cast list, though, is the Weston home, an incredibly intricate set constructed for the show which Carruthers said is more like another character than a setting.

“It was important to me to bring the audience into the house and make them feel that they’re in the house with these people,” she said.

“Fortunately, they’re going to be happy they don’t have to go home to live in that house.”

Ellis, who plays eldest daughter Barbara, agreed that the film version missed the intended tone of the play. Don’t see it, she said, if you haven’t already. See the play first.

“This is a ride and within every tragedy is comedy,” Ellis said. “I love the writing and I love the character.

“It’s challenging, but it’s a good challenge.”

Throughout the hilarious highs and cringe-worthy lows, Ellis said the play is really about alienation.

“For me there’s a theme about [how] you need do the work generationally,” she said. “If one family doesn’t do the work, regardless of how successful they are, for their children, their next generation, they haven’t done the emotional work, the family work, that dysfunction is still going to be passed on. I think it’s about doing the work and realizing that we all have choices every day. We have a choice to create a new path and the power of that, or to choose not to do something that’s been modeled for you.”

There’s many examples of how not to behave in the story, most of it courtesy of the fierce force of nature that is Violet, played by Deering.

The character — first portrayed in Chicago by Deanna Dunagan and immortalized in the film by Streep — is iconic, but easily misunderstood, Deering explained.

“Meryl Streep is my idol,” she said. “[But] she plays this character extremely fiercely throughout the entire [movie] and when I read the play I wanted Violet to be able to at least touch the hearts of people and appear to be somebody people would have come home to at this time when her husband is missing.

“She can be a monster but she’s not consistently a monster,” Deering said. “She’s a drug addict, and if you ever know a drug addict, they can be wonderful people. You can like them a lot. They can be very charismatic. They can even be really kind. But when their body is screaming out for what it needs they go away.”

In addition to the masterful dialogue and captivating characters, “August: Osage County” earned much acclaim for its prominent female roles, something many in the cast were especially excited about.

“Theater is not very kind to women,” Deering said. “There are not as many women’s roles as there are men’s roles. Most women’s roles are for young women. There are more women in theater than men and as we age we lose not only opportunity but folks don’t prefer us. This play has beautiful writing and it’s an epic quality play. It has the weight of ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ or ‘Death of a Salesman,’ some of the really great epic plays, and it has a plethora of mature women’s roles.”

Ellis agreed, and said, “There aren’t that many plays that honor middle-aged women and there are five roles that do that in this — so you can’t turn it down.”

The production’s youngest leading lady, McKenna Sanford, 16, who plays Ellis’ character’s daughter Jean, said reading and being in the play was “a life-changing experience.”

“Watching this cast grow from the very first day of rehearsal’s been a really fun experience,” she said. “It’s fun being the youngest one so I can learn from everybody who’s had all this experience.

“I like the wide range of ages.”

“August: Osage County” appears at BPA Friday, March 17 through Sunday, April 2, with evening shows at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays (with the exception of the Saturday, April 1 performance; a 2 p.m. matinée), plus Sunday matinées at 3 p.m. There will be a pay-what-you-can preview at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 16 and the opening night reception is 6:30 p.m. Friday, March 17.

Tickets, $29 for adults, $24 for seniors and $21 for students, youth, military and teachers, may be purchased online at www.bainbridge, by phone at 206-842-8569 and in person at BPA.

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