Friday, November 13, 2009

Feature: Jeff Still of 'August:Osage County' at The Bushnell

Shannon Cochran, Jeff Still and Estelle Parsons. Photo: Robert J. Saferstein.
Finding Function in a Play About Dysfunction
By Lauren Yarger
Any other member of a clan so dysfunctional that death and incest play second fiddle to the abuse heaped on everyone by its drug-addicted matriarch might find ways to avoid attending family gatherings, but Jeff Still loves it so much, he keeps coming back for more.

He comes back eight times a week, in fact, playing Bill Fordham, the matriarch’s son-in-law in Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer and Tony Award winning play August: Osage County stopping here next week at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford.

“What’s not to like?” quipped Still in an interview last week from Toronto where the tour is playing prior to coming to Connecticut. “It’s about family. Everybody’s got one and can relate,” he said.

Well, let’s hope we can’t relate on all of the dysfunctional levels of hell this family faces. The Westons gather when their father, Beverly, an alcoholic poet, disappears and is found dead. Revising the role she played on Broadway from June 2008-May 2009 is Estelle Parsons as his shrew of a wife, Violet, who is addicted to prescription drugs and, apparently, to hurling the worst kind of verbal abuse on her family, particularly eldest daughter Barbara (Shannon Cochran). Still plays the part of Bill, Barbara’s husband, who is having an affair with one of his students and planning to leave his wife, but who joins the family in their time of need, realizing this isn’t the time to announce the breakup of his marriage.

“He’s basically a good guy,” Still says of his alter ego. The character’s biggest flaw is the lax part he’s had in the bringing up of their teenage daughter, Jean, who is terribly neglected and quite a dysfunctional mess herself. Interestingly, the neglect on Bill’s part is so bad that during rehearsals, Still instinctively reached out to comfort Jean, but director Anna D. Shapiro (who directed the Broadway show too) stopped him. Bill would be unaware of Jean’s need, he realized.

The character analysis comes from an expert. Still, after all, has played Bill more than 100 times, having brought him to life in Chicago workshops where the play got its start at Steppenwolf, and having understudied the role on Broadway (as well as most of the male parts) before stepping into Bill’s persona for the national tour. A close friendship with Letts, whom Still met when the playwright was a teenage student at the college where Still’s father taught, gives him a personal appreciation for the work a well.

He has appeared in several others of Letts’ works including the world premiere of Bug in London and has nothing but admiration for his friend’s ability to write about the complexities of life and relationships, often with humor.

There is a surprising amount of humor in August: Osage County, despite its dark and difficult plot. “Some of it is laughing because they are uncomfortable,” he said, “and some comes from commentary on the world that we live in.” The humor and drama come together to form one of the most compelling family sagas to hit the stage since Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey into Night, to which it often is compared. Plays of this caliber just don’t come around that often, Still said.

“It’s a very enriching and enriched play full of great characters who are fully developed.”

It is taxing to deal with such intense emotions eight shows a week, Still confessed, but he takes one performance at a time, putting himself into the moment. This allows him to view the play as exciting and real each time, rather than as depressing.

“Everybody knows what it’s like to have a family and what it’s like when they come together. You begin with the gloves on, then they come off and you can talk to your family and be nakedly honest with no sugar coating because your family always has to take you in.” he said. And the definition of “dysfunctional” might need to be adjusted since almost every family can be classified this way, he added. In fact, dysfunctional may be the norm, Still said, based on the number of audience members from whom he has heard, “that’s my mother,” or “I’ve been at that dinner table.”

The healthy part of this dysfunction, Still said, is that by the end of the play, the characters all are moving forward. Some may not return to the house again, "but the air has been cleared.”

People continue to be amazed at how quickly the three-and-a-half-hour saga unfolds, Still said (it is presented with two intermissions).

“It’s a full night of theater.”

August: Osage County plays The Bushnell Nov. 17-22. Performances are 7:30 pm Tuesday-Thursday, 8 pm Friday, 2 pm and 8 pm Saturday and 2 pm and 7:30 pm Sunday. Tickets are $15-$65 and may be purchased by calling (860) 987-5900, in person at the box office at 166 Capitol Ave., or online at http://www.bushnell.org/.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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