August: Osage County

To paraphrase Tolstoy, all happy families are alike, all unhappy families are unique and some unhappy families win Tony Awards. That was the case with the clan in Tracy Letts’ dark comedy August: Osage County. They’re the kind of folks you’d dread spending Thanksgiving with, but are delighted to encounter in a theater.

When Michael Benton Disher saw the play on Broadway, he was struck by the way each of its 13 characters held the stage. “I liked every single character,” he told Pulse. “Not that I liked them as people; everyone is rather despicable. But it was thrilling to watch them navigate the stage.”

Disher soon set about getting the rights to produce the show for Center Stage at Southampton Cultural Center. “Apparently, we are the first company doing the show non-professionally here,” he said. “We’re a strange hybrid: Not a community theater but not a regional theater, either. We’re just good theater produced by and for the community in the Hamptons.”

Involved in theater at Southampton College since 1982 (including his first assignment designing the set for a 1983 staging of Ah! Wilderness), Disher is the first to admit the profession isn’t easy. “Short of cymbals between my knees, I’m pretty much a one-man band,” he noted. “We do aggressive fundraising and try to be self-sufficient. We do the best we can—all theaters will say that. It’s an uphill battle for every single company trying to keep this form of art and communication alive.”

Asked how his August: Osage County, which will run from March 20th to April 6th, will differ from the Broadway version, Disher replied, “Well, there’s no way I could recreate a three-story set. The Weston house will pretty much become a ranch (with slight elevations to differentiate the rooms). Also, I once got advice from Jonathan Miller after seeing his production of Long Day’s Journey into Night. He said, `Never be afraid to have conversations overlap. Just make sure the words, lines and phrases you want are punched.´ So I see many scenes literally overlapping one another.”

What Disher doesn’t see is a threat from the imminent dvd release of the film version of August, which stars Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts among others. “The movie is two hours,” he explained, “so there’s an hour of character development that has been diminished.

“Also, from an actor’s standpoint, the performances don’t have a cohesive vision. They’re not bad actors; they’re just not playing the same story. Article upon article has said that August: Osage County is a far better play than it is a film. And I’d have to agree wholeheartedly.”

Asked if he personally related to the Weston craziness in the play, Disher laughed, “Who wouldn’t? The norm has become dysfunction. Who amongst us doesn’t have a familial skeleton in the closet somewhere? I think we all do.”