Over the years Estelle Parsons has excelled at many different kinds of acting: she won an Oscar for her role in "Bonnie and Clyde." On TV she had regular roles in both "All in the Family" and on "Roseanne" as Roseanne Barr's acerbic mother. Currently she is playing Violet Weston, the wasp-tongued, pill-popping matriarch of a dysfunctional family in the awardwinning play "August, Osage County."
"You are a pretty girl," she says as Violet during a scene in the play where she talks with her daughter. "You are the prettiest of my three girls, but you always look like such a schlub. Why don't you wear any make-up?"
"Do I need make-up?" the woman says defiantly.
"All women need make-up. Don't let anybody tell you different," Violet replies. "The only woman who was pretty enough to go without make-up was Elizabeth Taylor - and she wore a ton. Now sit up straight."
"Mom!" her daughter groans in exasperation.
"August, Osage County" opens tonight at the Ordway in St Paul.
At first glance "August, Osage County" doesn't seem like it would be a comedy. It's about the extended Weston family, who gather at Violet's home in Oklahoma after her husband disappears.
It becomes clear that all is not well: with him with her, or her offspring. It spins off into a dark tale of dysfunction, addiction, abuse, and a host of other things. Yet Estelle Parsons says audiences are soon laughing.
"Maybe it's nervous, I don't know what all the laughter is about," she said, sitting in the Ordway foyer. "There is a lot of it which is genuinely funny, and the people are survivors, which I guess is terribly important to understand: that they are not giving up."
“I used to go on the Tonight show with Johnny Carson. He used to say 'Why are you so funny.' And I'd have to say,'I have no idea.'”Estelle Parsons
Parsons says while the Westons are an extreme example, "August Osage County" reflects the tensions present within many families, and audiences quickly respond.
"To the point that people in the audience speak back," she said. "And I've done enough theater where people speak back to know that lots of times they don't know they are doing it, they get so deeply caught up in what is happening. And it is a play about relationships, and we all have relationships so there is a very deep kind of involvement with the play almost from the moment it starts."
"August, Osage County" won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for playwright Tracy Letts and the 2008 Tony for Best Play. Parsons played Violet on Broadway, and since last July has been touring the country with the show.
That's no mean feat for any actor and Parsons is in her early 80's. Violet is a physically demanding role. The set includes a three story house with two flights of stairs for Parsons to repeatedly climb and descend.
"Three hundred and sixty-two steps, 700-and something on matinee days," she laughs. "I keep in good shape, principally. I work out, and I do the leg press at the gym. It's demanding, but you know, human beings are wonderful, myself included, because you get a challenge and you find you can do it."
Parsons says she sees herself less as an actor and more as a student of acting. She says working with the play and the 13 member cast for such a long time has been a great gift. She now has a much deeper understanding for Violet and the rest of her family.
It's increasingly rare to have the chance to work with material for such a long time she says as the new economic realities mean shows with shorter runs and smaller numbers of actors. She claims she's got a lot yet to learn though.
She sometimes wonders why people laugh at her. It used to bother her as a child, but she's grown to appreciate it.
"I used to go on the Tonight show with Johnny Carson. He used to say 'Why are you so funny.' And I'd have to say,'I have no idea.' Isn't that something? It's a mystery, but it's wonderful. Now I love it when people laugh. Once I did this play, 'Miss Marguerite," I did it at the Guthrie actually back in 1980 I think, and one night a man fell right out of his seat, and onto the aisle laughing, and I thought 'This is the epitome of what I want to do to people.' It was really fantastic."
It's unclear how many people will literally roll in the aisles but Estelle Parsons begins climbing the stairs in "August, Osage County," tonight through Saturday at the Ordway in St Paul.