Finally, the understudy gets her chance.
Barbara Kingsley watched on Broadway and then for more than 200 performances as actor Estelle Parsons lit up stages in "August: Osage County." Kingsley, a Twin Cities actor, became the American Theater's version of the Maytag repairman, as Parsons never missed a scheduled performance.
Now Kingsley gets to portray Violet Weston, the definitive stage harridan of this generation, at Park Square Theatre. Leah Cooper is directing the first Twin Cities production of Tracy Letts' play, which originated at Steppenwolf in Chicago, won Pulitzer and Tony awards and was hailed by critics as the best thing on Broadway during its 18-month run.
Everything swirls around Violet in Letts' unsparing portrait of family dysfunction. She bullies her family with a ferocious zeal, believing that only the scalding reality of truth matters.
"Whether I had done this role before or not, Leah told me she had thought of me as being appropriate for that part," Kingsley said. "Which makes me a little uncomfortable that people think I'm perfect for that part."
How Kingsley got on the "Osage County" radar to understudy Violet is a bit of kismet.
New York actor Margaret Daly, who worked with Kingsley in 2008's "Jane Eyre" at the Guthrie, told her that producers were looking for an understudy to back up the understudy in the Broadway production. This was after Deanna Dunagan, who had originated the role at Steppenwolf, was leaving the Broadway production, to be replaced by Parsons.
It's complicated, but when the star or primary understudy goes on vacation, some Broadway shows need another backup. In addition, Kingsley would need to understudy the role of Mattie Fae, Violet's sister in the play.
With Daly's help, Kingsley was able to hack through the byzantine New York audition process and get looked at by a casting director.
She had the job within 24 hours, and asked a friend who lived in New York if she could sleep on the friend's living-room floor.
"And I did nothing but live, eat and breathe that script for a month," Kingsley said.
A gift from heaven
When it came time to send "Osage County" on tour, Kingsley was again in the right place at the right time. Jane Grey, the production's stage manager, asked if she was interested and Kingsley said, "I'm in." To make it even better, Grey then inquired whether Kingsley's husband, Twin Cities actor Stephen D'Ambrose, might be right to understudy Violet's and Mattie Fae's spouses.
"I said, 'If I'm right for Violet and Mattie Fae, he's good for Charlie and Beverly,'" she said.
Parsons never took a day off during the tour, which Kingsley admires. Kingsley did, however, get to perform the role in understudy rehearsals.
"I joked that I have played to the cracks in the floorboards and the dusty corners of some of the best roadhouses in this country," she said. "Estelle watched us rehearse in St. Louis and she said, 'I think you're good.'"
Otherwise, Parsons and Kingsley did not discuss the role, even though they enjoyed each other's company, swimming and working out, and occasionally sharing dinner with other members of the cast.
"She was very interested -- Stephen and I were from Minnesota -- so they were interested in what we do, because everyone else was from New York," Kingsley said.
There was a time when Kingsley said she really would have loved to get onstage with the role, but once Parsons' amazing streak continued (she was 80 years old when the tour began), Kingsley said she would have been "really sad" if the star couldn't finish with a perfect attendance record.
Re-finding the character
D'Ambrose plays Beverly in the Park Square production. Chris Mulkey and Karen Landry, Minnesota natives who spend most of their time working in Los Angeles, play Charlie and Mattie Fae. Michael Paul Levin, Carolyn Pool, Kate Eifrig and Terry Hempleman are also in the cast. Michael Hoover has designed and built the three-story house in which the action takes place.
Set on the scratchy soil of Oklahoma, Letts' play uses Beverly's disappearance as its dramatic trip wire. The Weston clan returns to await news and then the secrets trickle out. Any comity or unity that might have existed is shattered. Violet, a prescription-pill addict, orchestrates the savagery with a wicked tongue and indomitable spirit.
Kingsley said she wants to approach Violet with fresh eyes, a prodigious challenge given her history with the role. The actor asked Cooper to police her work during rehearsals.
"I said, 'Tell me when I'm holding on to something really old here,'" Kingsley said.
As for the character herself, Kingsley said her Violet is deeply sad, lonely and unhappy.
"I'm hoping you see a woman who is terrified," said Kingsley, who has come to understand Violet's journey.
"Even when she appears she's being brutal, she thinks it's appropriate to either toughen you up or give a truth that is hard and ugly," she said. "She's not being shrill for the sake of being shrill."
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY
What: By Tracy Letts. Directed by Leah Cooper.
When: Previews 2 p.m. Sun., 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Thu. Opens 7:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 2 p.m. next Sun. Ends Oct. 2.
Where: Park Square Theatre, 20 W. 7th Pl., St. Paul.
Tickets: $25 preview; $38-$58 after opening. 651-291-7005, orparksquaretheatre.org.