Friday night at Garvin Theatre, Susanne Marley will be stepping back into a familiar role: Violet, the bitterly acerbic family matriarch at the center of the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County. “I love this play,” said the veteran actress, who performed the part more than 60 times on Broadway. “It’s in my bones.”
But there’s a subtle difference between her New York City experience and the one she’ll have with the Santa Barbara City College Theatre Group. At Garvin Theatre, she’ll go on even if no one falls over with exhaustion, suffers a concussion, or takes a vacation.
Marley understudied both Deanna Dunagan, who created the role, and Estelle Parsons, who took it over to great acclaim (and later reprised her performance in Los Angeles). Given the size and intensity of both the play (which runs three hours) and the role (Marley calls Violet a “marvelous ogre”), it’s not surprising to learn she went on regularly — especially during Dunagan’s days, when Marley performed most of the matinees.
“For the audience, it races along,” she said in a recent interview. “But for the actor, it’s grueling! I’m choked and thrown over couches. My hair is pulled. And then there are the stairs!”
Those stairs are an important element of the huge set, a reproduction of a large three-story house on the Oklahoma plains. Violet uses them frequently — sometimes while stoned — as she maneuvers to intimidate her extended family. Her sister, three daughters, and their assorted husbands and lovers descend upon the family home to provide support when Violet’s husband, an alcoholic writer, inexplicably disappears.
“At the core of her character is great sorrow, loneliness, and emotional neediness brought about by her own poverty and abusive childhood,” explained director Katie Laris. “She has suffered this blow of betrayal by her husband, and she’s now intent on destroying every member of her family. She’s taking them down with her — and she knows how to get to each of them.”
“She’s like a heat-seeking missile,” agreed Marley. “She knows where everyone’s buttons are.”
If that sounds a bit like Eugene O’Neill, Tracy Letts’s play (written for his colleagues in the acting ensemble of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company) owes something to that American master. But unlike O’Neill’s dissections of dysfunctional families, August: Osage County is a comedy; the putdowns are as funny as they are stinging.
Both Marley and Laris admitted to occasionally using some of his choicer rejoinders. “I find myself getting in arguments just for the sake of using these words because they’re so great!” Laris said with a laugh. “You want to incorporate them into your life!”
Marley, who turned 65 during rehearsals, has spent a lifetime in the theater (although voice-over work has paid a lot of the bills). A native of the South, she made her stage debut at age 7, shortly after her family moved to Delaware. “I still had my accent, which was not the pretty one,” she recalled. “It was a West Virginia twang. At school, everybody made so much fun of the way I talked. I got quieter and quieter.”
All that changed when she took over the lead role in the school pageant when the girl cast in the part “threw up and couldn’t go on.” In saving the day, she gained a newfound respect — and a clear career path.
While her research chemist father insisted she earn a college degree (she majored in history at Ohio Wesleyan University), upon graduation, she moved to New York City. She trained with Wynn Handman, a protégé of the legendary Sanford Meisner, and was soon working regularly.
“It was pretty good for a long time,” she said. “But as you get older, there are fewer parts. And with the economy, many regional theaters are closing or doing a lot of two-character shows.”
As an understudy for August: Osage County, Marley had to be at the theater every night at 7 p.m., a half-hour before curtain. If the actresses playing Violet and her sister (whom Marley also understudied) were in place at 7:30 p.m., she was released. But she carried a beeper and was expected to stay within 10 minutes of the theater in case she was needed mid-show.
“I couldn’t go home, but I could go to movies or plays,” she said. “I didn’t mind at all. The money was good, and I was happy to have a job!”
Her current job is the result of a happy coincidence. She was in two productions at the Two River Theater in New Jersey, which Jonathan Fox ran before moving to Santa Barbara to become artistic director of Ensemble Theatre Company. “I called up Jonathan and asked if he knew anybody,” Laris recalled, “and he said, ‘As a matter of fact, I might have somebody good.’”
Laris is thrilled to have Marley as an Equity guest artist; she’s appreciative of both her work ethic and her commitment to stay in shape for this challenging role (she swims regularly). For Marley, getting sick is out of the question; after all, she has no understudy.
August: Osage County previews October 18 and runs October 19-November 3 at Garvin Theatre on Santa Barbara City College’s West campus. For tickets and information, call 965-5935 or visit theatregroupsbcc.com.