Leah Cooper had a couple of actors specifically in mind when she began work on the Park Square production of August: Osage County. You see, local theater vets (and longtime couple) Barbara Kingsley and Stephen D'Ambrose knew the play inside and out. They had to, as the pair had understudied multiple parts on the national tour.
That has helped as Cooper, making her director's debut at the St. Paul theater, works with Tracy Letts' brilliant look at a multi-generational American family.
"Before we started, Barbara and I had a long breakfast conversation where she told me which scenes were the most difficult to prepare, Cooper says. "At other times, you would want to know what the playwright was thinking, and they had talked to him about it."
Cooper has loved August: Osage County since she first saw it on tour, and jumped at the chance to direct it on a local stage.
"It's a damn good play," she says. "It has a well-written script. It's been a while since we have had so much meat and ferocity in a script. It's also filled with strong roles for women."
That made the show a popular choice long before opening night. "We had 300 people show up for auditions, and there were so many amazing actors I had never seen. There were people I've always wanted to work with and I wasn't able to cast them."
Those actors were in for a ride, as the play's no-holds barred look at a single family united for a few days by tragedy required hard work from day one.
"Sometimes, in a play with 13 characters, most of them will just be backdrops. In this one, they all have different journeys," Cooper says. "It's also massive in size. There's a three-story house, and often there are things happening in every space. It has been a real tight schedule. We've been balls to the wall from the beginning."
Kingsley plays matriarch Violet. "She is a total powerhouse, and this role is like King Lear for a woman. She has brought such gusto to the role," Cooper says.
D'Ambrose plays patriarch Beverly, whose disappearance early in the play sets off the events to follow. Other company members include Karen Landry, Chris Mulkey, Virginia S. Burke, Kate Eifrig, Terry Hempleman, Peter Moore, and Carolyn Pool.
"It's a play full of witty dialogue and sharp, black comedy at its best," Cooper says. "Extreme comedy and tragedy alternate. It's just a rollercoaster, and it doesn't feel like three hours at all. After the show is done, it all hits you."
August: Osage County continues in previews this week and opens Friday at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul. The run continues through October 2.