BWW Interviews: Keegan Theatre¬'s Mark A. Rhea on Opening AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY and His Life¬'s Work
If home is where the heart is, Mark A. Rhea’s heart is in the right place. His artistic home for the last 15 years is the Keegan Theatre.
According to their mission statement, “The Keegan Theatre exists to explore the human condition, present the richness of Ireland’s theatrical tradition, and provide an environment for artists to freely develop their creative potential.”
Located in the Dupont Circle area of Washington, D.C., in the intimate Church Street Theatre, the Keegan has earned a reputation for high quality acting, due in part to a dedicated resident Acting Company. Regular tours to Ireland have solidified their reputation, most recently with a revival of the THE CRUCIBLE, first mounted during the 2003 season.
Mark is the Keegan's producing artistic director, and along with current resident company members Sheri S. Herren and Eric Lucas, he one of the founders of the Keegan.
During recent seasons, Rhea has continued his double and sometimes triple duties of acting, directing and even designing scenery at the Keegan. As an actor, in addition to THE CRUCIBLE, Mark appeared in TWELVE ANGRY MEN as the prejudiced Juror Number 10, the bitter ex-judge William Ruffin in Peter Coy’s A SHADOW OF HONOR, and Eddie, the confused rodeo stuntman, in Sam Shepard’s FOOL FOR LOVE.
As director – and sometimes scenic designer – Mark’s recent credits include the musical SPRING AWAKENING (co-directed with wife Susan), and the world premiere of Matthew Keenan’s AN IRISH CAROL, which returns for the Keegan’s 2012-13 season. Rhea earned a Helen Hayes Award nomination – outstanding director for a resident company – for the 2012 production of RENT.
His latest effort puts him in the director’s chair once again, this time for the final production of Keegan’s 15th season, AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY. The darkly comedic play by Tracy Letts took the 2008 Tony Award for best play and the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Keegan's production runs August 3 through September 2, 2012.
Originating at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY arrived on Broadway in 2007. With most of the original company intact, it toured to England and Australia. The play puts an anything-but-typical Midwestern American family on display, warts and all. The grown-up Weston children gather in their family home after the disappearance of their father. Secrets are laid bare, and long-buried truths are exposed as the clan of Oklahomans clash. At the center of the scathingly humorous play is their pill-popping, acid tongued matriarch, Violet Weston.
Mark A. Rhea was gracious enough to talk about AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY and the Keegan Theatre prior to the August 3 opening.
That’s an easy question. It is a powerhouse of a play. It is the type of theatre I feel we really handle well. I felt we had the actors to do it justice.
JW: Describe the play to someone who has never seen it in just two words?
JW: Is there a key piece of advice or direction you gave the cast as they prepared their roles?
I told them don’t try to make a moment be funny or horrible. Just be honest and true to the characters, no matter the situation. Go out there and let the situation of what is happening in each particular scene drive your character’s raw emotion. Live it!
JW: Talk about the casting process.
I knew we had the majority of the actors in our company to pull off the show, but I wasn’t exactly sure where everyone would fit, especially for the sisters. I knew I needed Susan [Marie Rhea] in the show and as a company we discussed where she could be best used. The majority seemed to feel she was the right age for the middle daughter Ivy, and I really saw her as the oldest daughter Barbara. I went in saying, “Maybe she is a better Ivy.”
I had her read Ivy a couple times, and then once for Barbara. When she did that, it was clear. It really was one of the best pieces of acting I had ever seen, and it was just an audition. I turned to my assistant director, Christina Coakley, and said, “Okay, that answers that question; let’s build the cast around Susan playing Barbara.”
It really took shape after that with all the sisters, Susan, Belen Pifel, and Karen Novack. They all look similar and are wonderful actors. I had also called in the extremely talented Rena Cherry Brown to read, as I felt she was really the type we needed to play Violet. After a couple readings, I knew I had a Violet that fit my vision. The rest of the cast just really fell into place after that.
JW: Have you thought about the parallels between Chicago’s Steppenwolf company and the Keegan?
When we started the company in 1996, Steppenwolf was the inspiration on how Keegan was formed. We are still staying true to that inspiration, and we are doing a phenomenal play that got its start there.
JW: The original Steppenwolf production that came to Broadway and toured the world was known for the three-tiered set representing the Weston house. How has your design team made the play work for the Church Street venue?
I think audiences will be surprised how huge the set looks. Ours doesn’t have three tiers – more like two and a half or even two and a quarter. In the Church Street space, the house looks massive to me. It’s also a very smart design. The set designer Stefan Gibson and his team have done an amazing job utilizing every ounce of the space.
JW: Is there anything else you want to share about the play?
With our production being so intimate, it is going to be very interesting to see audience’s reaction.
JW: Let’s talk about the theatre company for a moment. This year makes 15 years of the Keegan. As one of the founders, does it seem like only yesterday?
Sometimes it seems like yesterday and some days it feels like a thousand years ago. That's mostly when I look in the mirror.
Honestly, it has been an amazing 15 years and whatever the future holds, Keegan is my life’s work and I couldn’t be more proud of what we have all accomplished over these years.
JW: Has the original mission of the Keegan Theatre stayed constant or has it evolved over time?
I think it the mission has stayed constant. We have started producing more musicals than when we started. We always did them, just not two productions a year.
JW: What’s next for the Keegan Theatre?
Next up, we have Frank and Malachy McCourt’s A COUPLE OF BLAGUARDS. It is directed by Colin Smith and stars Robert Leembruggen and Timothy Hayes Lynch. It should be hilarious. It will also be nice to go from the detailed setting of AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY to practically no set at all.
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, a play by Tracy Letts. Mark A. Rhea, director. Cast: Stan Shulman (Beverly Weston), Rena Cherry Brown (Violet Weston), Susan Marie Rhea (Barbara Fordham), Colin Smith (Bill Fordham), Lynsday Rini (Jean Fordham), Belen Pifel (Ivy Weston), Karen Novack (Karen Weston), Kerry Waters Lucas (Mattie Fae Aiken), Kevin Adams (Charlie Aiken), Michael Innocenti (Little Charles Aiken), Shadia Hafiz (Johnna Monevata), Charlie Abel (Steve Heidebrecht), and Eric Lucas (Sheriff Deon Gilbeau). Run time: approximately 3 hours. The Keegan Theatre at Church Street in Dupont Circle, through September 2, 2012. Curtain is 7:30 pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturday evenings, with 3 pm Sunday matinees. 703.892.0202