If there weren’t enough good reasons to see Tracy Letts’ extraordinary August: Osage County before it closes on Sunday, June 28 — including Phylicia Rashad‘s brilliant turn as matriarch Violet Weston and Amy Morton’s sublime performance as her daughter, Barbara — just consider the opportunity to see Tony Award winner Elizabeth Ashley in top form as Violet’s blowsy, big-mouthed sister, Mattie Fae. TheaterMania recently spoke with Ashley about working on the award-winning show.
THEATERMANIA: How did this role come about for you?
ELIZABETH ASHLEY: Right before the Broadway production of Dividing the Estate went into rehearsal, I finally got to see the show with Estelle Parsons and Amy Morton in it. At the time, I had no idea I’d ever be involved in it in any form; but watching it, I felt it was everything I wanted to happen in theater. I like hard art; I am not much for mushy valentines or silly musicals. Then, when I was in rehearsal for Dividing the Estate, Jeff Richards [the show’s producer] called and asked me if I wanted to join the company when Dividing the Estate closed. I thought he was asking me about playing Violet, and he said, ‘no, I mean Mattie Fae.’ I was thrilled and floored, but also torn because we all hoped that Dividing the Estate would extend.
TM: Did you have any qualms about being a replacement?
EA: Well, I had never replaced anyone before in a show; and I am not a quick study. It just happens that I had never done the kind of stock theater where you rehearse for a week and put it up. But since this was a huge complicated machine, with so many people involved, I knew they wouldn’t change much blocking or anything.
TM: Still, your portrayal of Mattie Fae is very different than Rondi Reed (who originated the role and won the Tony Award) or Molly Regan. What is your take on her?
EA: I saw Mattie Fae as the kind of woman who was third runner-up in a local beauty pageant as a kid — she was definitely the cute one, while Violet was the smart one — and then grew up to be someone who ran the same kind of contest in a backwater town. She’s the kind of woman who has no piece of hair that couldn’t be sprayed a little higher or no sequin that couldn’t be added on. I grew up with women who were like that. I believe you can grab hold of anything that gives you confidence or helps you find truth in your character. I will root and pillage anything to do that. Of course, the playwright has given you a road map to finding the character, but it’s like detective work to find your idea of the character. I’ve also found it’s really important that I leave myself open during the process, and don’t make the decision too early about who a character is.
TM: Mattie Fae has a very contentious relationship with her son, Little Charles. Do you see her as a “bad mother?”
EA: I don’t see her as a bad mother; she is just one more person who life has put into a corner. I would say she’s a tragic mother. She just wants him to be better. In real life, I’m also a mother with one son, and I know the more you love them, the more brutal you are to them.
TM: What has been the difference for you between working with Estelle and Phylicia?
EA: They are both great actresses, no doubt about it. Estelle was dangerous and brutal; she was like an assassin laying in wait and you always saw her intelligence. Phylicia is different; with her Violet, you see the vulnerability, the loving mother, and the fall from grace when she is clutched by her demons. You see the entire spectrum of the woman. I’ve always believed that with brilliant writing there is no right way to play any part — although there are wrong ways — and actors with creative imagination, which is the greatest gift we have, can find their own way to serve the text.
TM: Do you now have a desire to take on the role of Violet?
EA: I might give it a shot someday, but having worked with Estelle and Phylicia, even I might be cowed by the assignment.
TM: Has August been a unique experience for you?
EA: I’ve been acting for 50 years, and yes it has. It is truly astonishing the way audiences wallow in this play. I haven’t experienced anything like this since I did Agnes of God, where people did not stop talking about it after they had seen it.
TM: I’ve rarely seen so much audience reaction during a play. There are so many gasps, because of all the revelations in the script.
EA: The gasps are always there, even if they come at different times with different audiences. But for me, the quality of the silence is the most important thing, because then I really know they’re listening.