If the first section of August: Osage County amounts to an anxious introduction to one of the most dysfunctional families in Broadway history, one starts breathing easily the moment Amy Morton appears onstage. As Barbara, the eldest daughter in the Weston clan, Morton's deadpan cynicism and gutter-mouthed viewpoint provide many levels of relief—comic, emotional and physical. Unsurprisingly, her performance has earned a Drama Desk nomination and will likely score one for the upcoming Tony Awards, too. And that makes the Illinois-born actor-director very uncomfortable. A member of Steppenwolf since 1997, Morton is the definition of "low-key," a team player with a soft spot for ensemble pieces, including her Broadway debut as Nurse Ratched in 2001's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Equally gifted as a director, she's also staged revivals of Glengarry Glen Ross in Chicago and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in Atlanta. Broadway.com caught up with Morton to talk about her relationship with August playwright and recent recipient of the Pulitzer Prize Tracy Letts, the ups and downs of being in such a landmark play, and how she and her fellow cast members are making the most of the show's long, strange trip.
The cast has been on Broadway for a while now. Is all of that familial dysfunction taking its toll?
It's still a blast to do, except on two-show days. That's too much. I'm pretty much a crumpled up mess by the end of Wednesday and Saturday. It's brutal.
In what ways, exactly?
It's just an uphill battle. Physically, I do a lot shouting and a lot of running around, so that gets exhausting. Emotionally, it takes a lot out of you because of what the character goes through in the course of three and a half hours. Afterward, I feel like I've been put through the wash cycle a few times.
Director Anna D. Shapiro recently told us that you guys are onstage more than 24 hours every week.
Wow, I could've lived without hearing that number. [Laughs.] But on single-day show days, it's great. I mean, how can you not love doing this play? This is the best play I've ever been in.
Tracy gave me a copy, and I went, "Oh God…" Because it was so thick! I thought, "OK, I'll read it over the next few days." But I took it home and I started reading it, and I never put it down until I was done. You just had to keep going. It was so good, so funny and brilliant. And it didn't read long at all. I don't think it plays long, either. Even at three and a half hours, it's still lean.
Has it gone through many changes since then?
We did a workshop before we started rehearsal, and Tracy made some small changes—nothing major, no characters changed or anything like that. Then, once we got it up in Chicago and we knew it was coming here, he rewrote some of the third act. It's still evolving. What you saw last night is different than what you saw in the first preview here. It's a live thing.
Do you improvise at any point?
There's a lot of improv in the dinner scene. Like when Little Charles first comes in, all of our greetings are ad-libbed, as are a lot of the reactions. That's a lot of fun.
The cast seems like a well-oiled machine now. Do you ever worry about it all feeling too slick for its own good?
When you do a run this long, you go through a period of feeling stale. You think, "I stink and I feel completely uninspired." But then you tap into something new and things change. It helps that we've been working together for so long and that we're so accustomed to each other. That keeps it fresh because you can change up your blocking a little or throw something new at someone else and you know they're going to catch the ball.
How does this compare to previous roles you've played?
It's definitely challenging in the sense that I'm onstage almost the whole time. But then, Tracy's language just falls out of your mouth. Nothing feels contrived. And I didn't really have to do any sort of preparation. Quite often with new plays, there's a hole somewhere. Maybe it's unclear in the writing how one character feels about another, so you have to make it up. But Tracy specializes in pinpoint accuracy. You just get on the ride and go.
The audience seems happy to be on the ride, too.
I've been in other plays that I've adored and had roles that I've loved but nothing that's been embraced this much by audiences. There's gasps and laughs and people actually shouting things like "No! No!" You don't normally get those visceral responses for a straight play.
What do people tell you about Barbara?
I get a lot of people saying "I'm Barbara," or "I'm the Barbara of my family." I also hear "This play makes me feel so much better about my family." Then there are the people who say, "No, actually this play is my family." To which I say, "I'm deeply sorry for you."
Barbara seems to connect with the audience the most. Why do you think that is?
One of reason is that a lot of people would love to strangle their mother. [Laughs.] I mean, who doesn't want to glare at their mom and scream, "Eat your fish, bitch!" Who hasn't wanted to look at their husband and shout, "You narcissistic motherfucker"?
You're gifted when it comes to swearing.
Well, it's close to home. My whole family swears like truck drivers, including my parents! They swore all the time. It's not something that I'm particularly proud of, but it works well for this role.
What's it like working with Tracy Letts?
He's my favorite actor to work with, basically. We have similar tastes, similar senses of humor. He's dark. And I always appreciate dark. He's brave and bold and unapologetic—all things you'd like to see in an actor and a playwright.
The only role he specifically wrote for was Mattie Fae for Rondi Reed. But he was able to tailor the rest to everybody's strengths. Like he threw in Barbara's hot flashes for me, since I'm menopausal and I'm able to do them anytime.
Were you surprised he won the Pulitzer? Be honest.
I wasn't surprised that he got it. But I would've been deeply surprised if he didn't. I knew doing the show that next day was going to be a real bummer if he didn't win.
The play itself's been on quite a roller coaster—with its success and then the death of Dennis Letts, Tracy's father, who passed away just after you opened.
It's sort of indescribable. All of us knew that Dennis was sick. We honored his desire to continue with the play, and every day, you could see the love and devotion he felt for his son. Then we got to Broadway, and first, the strike happened, which was really sad. Then we opened to such enormous success, and then Dennis died. It's just been Greek, man. Lots of extreme highs and extreme lows. Very profound.
Do you prefer a more stable kind of existence, or do you thrive in such intense situations?
Most actors do, I guess. But I prefer to keep it onstage. It's a lot harder to deal with when that stuff happens in real life.
Why do you think there's no Steppenwolf-like organization in New York?
First off, keeping companies together anywhere is extremely difficult. In the early days, Steppenwolf almost fell apart a million times. But if you stay in Chicago, it's rare that you're going to get rich and famous. So there're no distractions, just an intense focus on work. In New York, there's more competition, so there's a greater focus on individual actors and individual performances. Plus, renting a theater space in Chicago is a lot cheaper than renting one here. And it's easier to live; apartments are cheaper.
How have you adjusted to Manhattan life?
I love New York. I'm having a blast now. The first three weeks we were here, though, I could barely keep my eyes open past three in the afternoon. This city felt so exhausting, and my feet were killing me! [Laughs.] Now I've adapted, and just adore being here. But, you know, everybody misses home. I miss my husband [sound designer Rob Milburn]. I miss my bed. I miss my theater company. I miss my nieces. Still, I get to wake up every day and be in a big fat hit on Broadway. So really, there're no complaints!
I feel lucky that I get to do both. One feeds the other. Directing makes you a better actor and vice versa. Directing can be harder, mentally, because it requires so much focus and you need to pay attention to so much more than just you're performance. But you get to walk away after opening night and not run the show. Running the show can be such a bitch when you're an actor.
One imagines Steppenwolf to be this very hands-on operation, with actors double-timing as directors and directors painting scenery in their spare time.
When the company first started, it was basically all actors who got together because they wanted to do their own kinds of plays and they wanted to be in them. So somebody would be forced to direct one, and they'd go, "OK, I'll direct this one, but the next one, I get to be in!" Nobody started out wanting to direct, believe me.
You directed a revival of Glengarry Glenn Ross that premiered in Chicago before going to Dublin and Toronto. Was it strange taking on the ultimate "guy" play?
To me, it wasn't any different from anything else I've done. It doesn't matter if the cast is all guys or all girls; you're still just telling a story. Besides, I grew up with Mamet. I first studied acting at St. Nicholas Theater, which was where he did most of his early work. I'm very familiar with his rhythms, his locations, his people. And being able to do Glengarry in Chicago and with Chicago actors? It was like, "This is exactly where this belongs." It was a blast.
You also did The Pillowman.
Well, that speaks to my extreme dark side. I had a great time doing it, but we had many walkouts. Some people just couldn't take it, and I completely understood that.
What scripts attract you as a director?
It's got to have some real bite to it. I also like doing the American classics. I did a production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that Tracy was in as George. That's a great, great American play and it's got a lot of bite, so that made me happy. Basically, I think I'm an actor's director. I'm not a concept director. I don't approach things like, "Hey, let's put this play on Mars."
That makes for a fitting transition into the next question: Are you thinking about the Tonys?
Oh, I try not to. I really, really try not to. Awards… I don't know what to tell you about awards. Awards are just weird. They're weird things. I think they're —I don't know. God, this is nerve wracking! Look, I understand winning an award if you, say, won a race. In that case, you know there's a clear winner. But when it comes to thing like plays and books and pieces of art, it's totally subjective. I watch the Oscars and all I can think is, "This is not why I'm in the business."
Being in an ensemble must also make awards season frustrating.
I'm telling you: We all are only as good as the people we are up there with. It's a cliché, but with this play, it's the truth. If someone wins an award for August, we all win it. I kind of can't wait until July, when all of this season is done. I don't like thinking about it. I just want to do the damn work.
But what if you have to go to Radio City and dress up and be on TV?
I have no idea! I've never been to something like that ever. I am completely clueless. I have no idea. I'll just go wherever anyone tells me to go.
C'mon, it's got to be at least a little bit exciting, huh?
Of course! I mean, to be part of something so extraordinary and to experience a career pinnacle like this? Hey man, I'll take it! I know this is the best play I'll ever be in. I know this is the best role I'll ever have. It's all downhill from here.
See Amy Morton in August: Osage County at the Music Box Theatre.