As the matriarch of an Oklahoma family with more than their share of secrets, Violet has let her difficult childhood years influence the rest of her life, Harmon says. "The ways that she chose to survive are not very healing to her or anybody else there; in fact, quite destructive." Armed with enormous wit and cleverness, Violet sees through everyone's lies but her own, Harmon tells Art Attack in a pre-rehearsal interview this week.
All of which makes for very intense and funny theater, says director Jackson Gay, back at the Alley after directing the equally intense but "not funny" Intellligence Slave last year. (She's welcoming the return; she went to Clements High School in Sugar Land.)
"People recognize themselves in [Violet]. It might be extreme, but everybody has those extreme moments. Violet just has them 24-7," Gay says.
The "soap opera" is played out over three acts and three hours and 20 minutes (and two intermissions) of theater. In 2008, the play by Tracy Letts, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Tony Award for Best Play, the Drama Desk Award for Best New Play, the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Broadway Play.
Harmon, now in her 44th year of professional acting (including roles on Broadway), says she jumped at the chance to audition for the part.
"These are wonderful women's roles," she says. "Tracy Letts has really taken care of the women in this play. He's given us magnificent roles."
She's also a fan of the play's large cast with 13 parts.
"I'm not much of a one-woman-show person," she says. "Well, I'm stealing from Judi Dench; she said she likes to know when she leaves her dressing room she's on her way to meet people. That's what it feels like. "
Asked how audiences feel about her pill-addicted, frequently cruel character, Harmon says that although they may not like her all the time, "They sure do laugh."
And they talk, too. Harmon and Gay both say that audiences have a tendency to gasp aloud and talk during this play's performances, which Gay says normally she doesn't like but it just shows how involved everyone gets watching it. Harmon says at one performance a woman on the front row reacting to an unveiled secret, blurted out loudly "Oh my God!" Laughing, Harmon says, "It was the very reaction we want."
August: Osage County opens Wednesday, February 23 and runs through Sunday, March 13, 2011 on the Hubbard Stage at the Alley Theatre Ticket information is available at www.alleytheatre.org, at the Alley Theatre Box Office, 615 Texas Avenue, or by calling 713.220.5700.