In 2007, Deanna Dunagan and Rondi Reed blew onto the New York theater scene with their now-storied performances as Violet Weston and Mattie Fae Aiken in Tracy Letts' August: Osage County. After winning Tonys for their work, the pair, along with other members of the original cast, took the play to London and Australia, an unexpected delight for a show that was only supposed to run for a month or so at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Seven years later, Dunagan and Reed are returning to their characters to take part in the production at L.A. Theatre Works. The show, which runs for only a few days, July 8-13, will be recorded in audio format and performed for a live audience. TheaterMania chatted with the actresses about the joy of returning to the drama and the reasons why having the show live on in an audio is the best icing on the cake.
Did you have any inkling what August: Osage County would turn into the first time you did it in Chicago?
Rondi Reed: We both turned it down at first. I wondered if you knew that. Both of us ran away.
What made you change your mind?
Deanna Dunagan: I just kept reading it and kept thinking, boy, if I don't do it, I'm a coward, and I'll see somebody else do it and wish I had taken it on. [Steppenwolf] got me a trainer and put me into physical therapy so I could run the triathlon [that is the play]. I decided I needed a vocal coach and I had her come see the play and afterwards, she said, "You're doing the equivalent of eight opera performances a week."
Rondi: At the time, I was doing Wicked in Chicago. Boy, I waited for a job like that. I was having a ball and making a lot of money, relatively speaking. Tracy Letts kept bugging me and I was like, "I'm happy in Wicked," and he'd say, "Oh, f*ck Wicked, I wrote this part for you." Which is a very Tracy thing to say. [But] then Wicked put a bunch of us on hiatus, so I didn't have a job. I called Steppenwolf begging for a summer job, and this is the play it ended up being.
And now seven years down the line, you've done it a few hundred times around the world…
Rondi: We were all Chicago actors saying we don't want to go to New York, because our little lives would be uprooted. I turned to [costar] Sally Murphy and said, "This isn't gonna go to New York, it's too long, there are too many people." And she turned to me and said, "Hear me now, Rondi Reed, this play is gonna go to New York and you better go with it."
Deanna: We had to find our own housing in New York, and it was daunting, the logistics of it. New York is hard for me. I grew up in Texas. I can't do without my car, and you can't have a car in New York.
Was there any hesitation about going to London or Australia?
Deanna: No, we all wanted to go to London and Australia.
Was there any wavering in your mind to return to August: Osage County, as an audio version?
Rondi: I'd done a couple of these before, and I love the program. There's something about a play on the radio that I find really wonderful. I think it gives access to a lot of people who might not have access. It's also a great tool for theater students. I jumped on it right away…and I think it's terrific that they do it.
Deanna: I did a couple of what were then called Chicago Theater on the Air. They don't do those anymore. You can turn on your PBS, NPR station accidentally and get into one of those and you can't turn it off. They're mesmerizing.
Having performed the play so often, but now having a few years separation from the last time you did it, do you think your takes on the characters have changed?
Rondi: Honest to god, my brain is so much like swiss cheese that I have no idea. There's the danger of trying to repeat a performance, but I think that both Deanna and I lived inside these gals for long enough, on a deep enough level, that what's there is there.
Deanna: That's the thing. You were talking about having a record of it, Rondi, for people who haven't seen the play. The movie is out there, but so much of the language is gone from the movie. So we'll get to restore it. They'll have to cut some things, visual things that don't make sense…
Rondi: They try to make that work. They work with a Foley artist who's really incredible. It's gonna translate slightly differently, because it's such an inherently theatrical piece. It's very difficult to adapt. Tracy had to cut 90 minutes of the script [for the film]. I didn't see the film, maybe down the line I'll take a look at it. But of course, it's been done all over at this point.
I'll never forget the ending of the second act. It's one of those indelible theatrical moments.
Rondi: Shy little Amy Morton screaming "I'm running things now!"
Deanna: It had the reaction like at a Blackhawks game from the audience.
Rondi: Chuck Lorre, my big TV boss [on Mike and Molly], is a theater fanatic. He said, "I will never ever in my life forget the end of that Act Two. I feel very lucky to experience that."
And now people will be able to go on road trips and listen to it again and again.
Rondi: You can listen to "Eat the fish, b*tch" being screamed over and over!