Emotions run high and tempers flare hot in the Black Box Theatre this month.
It’s thanks to the theater’s latest show, “August: Osage County,” which opened Thursday. The show is set in the apex of summer, when the three Weston sisters get together with their mother, Violet (Roslyn Simmons), after their father, Beverly (Tom Berry), disappears and later is found to be dead.
The sisters argue, and the mother pops pills. There’s a wayward husband and a vulnerable-yet-feisty teenage girl.
If the theme of Violet’s drug abuse is sounding familiar, that’s in part by design.
“One of the points brought up during voting on this production for this season was the opiate crisis in MHC,” Director Joanie McPeak said. “We want to show that no matter the level of education, social status or age, drug addiction can affect any family.”
Simmons stepped into the role unexpectedly, at close to the last moment, when the original actor set to play the role stepped down.
Simmons is a TheatreWorks veteran, both on and off the stage, so filling in came more naturally to her than it would to most – but she’s guidance secretary at Fieldale-Collinsville Middle School, and she said, “With school starting, it’s the worst possible time.” That has had her feeling under pressure.
Nevertheless, anyone seeing her in the show would be hard-pressed to find any signs of stress. She credits her smooth performance to her fellow actors.
“The cast has been great as they are pulling me through,” she said.
Her character also is a far cry from her norm. “Violet is a fun character. She’s harsh. She really nasty and mean. She’s rough,” said Simmons, who usually tends to get comedic roles or play sarcastic characters.
“Oh my gosh, I get to yell at everybody” on stage, said a laughing Lanetta Byrd, who portrays Barbara Fordham, one of Violet’s three daughters.
Then, more seriously, she said, “It is very emotional. It pulls from a dark place that you [as an actor] have to tap into and pull” extreme emotions from past tragedies or upsets in life.
The show is “rough. It deals with a lot of” family trauma and trouble, she said.
When the audience sees the show, “I think they’re going to be a little shocked. I think they’re going to be a little horrified” at times. However, she said, the shock won’t be from seeing anything new — it would be from having dark troubles which plague many families held up to the light for inspection and reflection.
Director Joanie McPeak said because she has had “such a strong past, it’s made it rather easy” to direct the show, which she calls full of depth and emotion.
Each of the three sisters is a clear reflection of someone from her own family, she said.
“It’s a very dysfunctional family. It’s there; it’s everyday life. We’re pulling it out there” and being honest about it, Byrd said.
DeeDee Richardson, who plays the only calm and cool character, household employee Johnna, said the role is “the polar opposite” from the energetic and sultry Kit Kat Girl she portrayed in her first show, the recent “Cabaret.”
That previous role had far more movement and action with her character, and in this one she just glides tranquilly in and out of scenes, taking care of things.
“My presence shows contrast. I keep the family together,” Richardson said. “She [Johnna] hears, and she listens to so much going on in the family. … She’s trying to be the glue. She wants the family to be together because her family was close.”
Richardson said she loves that the show depicts family life as it really is for many. It also shows the surprising phenomenon of how people grow up thinking negatively about their parents but turn out to be just like them.
The rest of the cast: Valerie Clarke plays Ivy Weston; Tish Owens plays Karen Weston; Jim Woods plays Bill Forham; Sarah Foley is Jean Fordham; Chris Walker is Steve Heidebrecht; Amy Stuart is Mattie Fae Aiken; Steve McPeaks is Charlie Aiken, and his son, Zach McPeak, is “Little” Charles Aiken; and Keith Oliver is Sheriff Deon Gilbeau.
The show has a great deal of salty language, Richardson said, “But I don’t feel the point would come across without it.”
Holly Kozelsky is a writer for the Martinsville Bulletin; contact her at 276-638-8801 ext. 243.