Actress Cindy Peterson admits there’s part of her that relishes the role of Violet Weston in the current White Rock Players Club show August: Osage County, opening tonight (Friday) at Coast Capital Playhouse.
Vi is the acid-tongued, stubborn, painkiller-addicted, hate-filled matriarch of the ever-so-damaged Weston clan in playwright Tracy Letts’ ultra-black comedy about an upper middle-class Oklahoma family with more than a few skeletons in its closet.
The family is forced to reunite when patriarch Beverley – an alcoholic poet – unexpectedly disappears. But their togetherness is only technical, especially with the unrepentant Vi willing to prod every unhealed wound in the psyche of her daughters and their spouses.
And Peterson acknowledges that there is a zing to being able to deliver lines that will provoke a shocked audience reaction – even if they’re as far removed as possible from one’s own personality and beliefs.
“I’ve played pleasant characters,” noted Peterson, who was notable in the benign role of the visiting mom in Barefoot In The Park in the Players Club’s 2014 season (her ‘son-in-law’ in that play is August: Osage County director Ryan Mooney).
“But there are times when you think ‘I wish I could say that to someone’. There is something to being able to say things in character and have no personal repercussions.”
The Port Coquitlam resident said, however, that she feels the most important part of playing a character like Vi, who is “so fouled up,” is in forcing audiences to think about their own worst reactions.
Among the justifiably reprehensible unpleasantness oozing through the cracks in August: Osage County is the racism Vi directs to a newly-employed housekeeper from the Cheyenne nation.
“She says, ‘I’ve got an ‘Indian’ living in my home’ – she can’t even bring herself to say her name,” Peterson said. “Like every other strong emotion, it’s driven by fear.
“You wonder what made her fear these people – but there are so many out there who are afraid of other people from other races and backgrounds. It may hit home – I hope.
“This is the whole reason I started theatre 15 years ago, when my kids were grown up and I was divorced and wondering what I was going to do. I took a little acting class and discovered ‘hey, I like this.’
“As warped as it is – for some of the parts you get – it’s fun; it allows you to explore a different part of yourself, and allows audiences to explore a different part of themselves.”
While Peterson said she finds playing Vi “a tremendous challenge,” she says she was drawn to the script of August: Osage County when she first read it several years ago.
“I thought ‘this is probably something I’d want to do’,” she said, adding that the complexity of the family relationships in the play – and the sheer awfulness of Vi, was irresistible.
“It made my stomach flip – the depth of the unpleasantness and cruelty,” she said, adding that Letts shows how past mistakes and hurts – some of them revealed in monologues by Vi – continue to poison all the generations of the family.
“To explore that – could I do it, could I play that, could I do it in a believable way and leave audiences with the shock of it?”
She noted that Letts’ darkly witty script actually afflicts the bitterly spiteful Vi with cancer of the mouth, result of years of chain-smoking.
“It’s perfect, isn’t it? It’s a great analogy.”
But Peterson said she believes her performance as Vi is coloured with empathy drawn from personal experience. And she hopes the play will be a cathartic as well as comedic evening of theatre.
“Everyone’s family is dysfunctional,” she said.
“I’ve never met one that is normal. Just like every other teenager, I grew up thinking my family was the worst, and I’ve known people with drug and alcohol addictions. You see where it comes from and how it affects people around you. And you do whatever you think is best to raise your children – but no one really knows what they’re doing.
“In the play, you hope that the younger generations, going forward, can unburden themselves.”
Making playing the role easier, she said, is an “awesome” cast in the current production, which includes Alaina Holland, Andrew Wood, Alina Quarin, Pat McDermott, Katherine Morris, Heather Jane Robertson, Cale Walde, Samantha Silver, Cassidy Hryckiw, Chris Connor, Paul Cowhig and Fred Partridge.
“I’ve worked with a number of them over the years,” she said, adding that the rehearsal process included a lot of table readings and exploration of character, forging a closeness among the actors.
“There’s one scene at the dinner table where Vi is saying some pretty nasty things – the looks I’m getting back from the others, I’m thinking, ‘I hope they’re not taking any of this personally’,” she laughed.
“It really does become a family through the rehearsal and production process.”
The show, which runs until April 28 – with 7:30 p.m. performances Wednesday to Saturday and 2:30 p.m. matinées Sundays – is presented with a warning of adult themes and language.
Tickets ($22, $19 students and seniors, $10 Wednesdays) are available at the Coast Capital Playhouse box office (Wednesday to Saturday, 1-5 p.m.) at 1532 Johnston Rd., or through whiterockplayers.ca