The most anticipated theater event next week is the arrival of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning play August: Osage County. Doubtless, and deservedly, most of the attention will be focused on 83-year-old Estelle Parsons as the queen bee of the corrosive Weston clan. But for me the production will have added resonance. Although my earliest theater memories are of the Muny, my earliest indoor theater memory is of having seen Geraldine Page in The Rainmaker, her first national tour, at the American Theater on Grand Boulevard. More than a half-century later, the cast of August: Osage County features Page's only daughter, Angelica Torn, in her first national tour.
Born into theater royalty (her father is the irascible yet brilliant Rip Torn), Angelica grew up in New York City. "I attended Bank Street School for Children, which was experimental for its time," Torn says by phone from Chicago soon after August: Osage County has opened to rapturous reviews. "A lot of the kids' parents were artists whose careers did not cling to a nine-to-five schedule. So when I was in school, it didn't dawn on me that actors did anything unusual. But at the first summer camp I went to, outside of New York, when the other kids found out who my parents were, they started treating me as if I was different. They wanted to come and touch my sleeping bag, which I thought was completely weird."
Still, there were the occasional moments when Torn knew her mother did something remarkable. "I went on location with her for almost all her films," Torn says. "When we were in Alabama for A Christmas Memory, it was very bewildering to see my mom be so old all of a sudden. And not with a lot of makeup. She just put on this white hair and became this character [Sook, in the classic Truman Capote story]. I was only four or five, but one of my earliest memories is of being really confused that she could age so quickly."
While other kids were home watching television, Torn was haunting theater dressing rooms: "I remember during Absurd Person Singular at the Music Box Theatre, my mother had an extra room in the back of her dressing room, and that was my room. Most nights I would come to the theater after school and do my homework there. Then I would fall asleep and wake up in the middle of the third act. For my late-night snack, Sandy Dennis would be onstage making a peanut butter and butter sandwich on whole wheat. She would eat half of it in the play. Then when she came offstage, I'd be waiting in the wings, and she would hand me the other half of her sandwich."
Although Torn initially resisted a career in acting, Page had other ideas: "She asked me if she could cast my son, who was six months old at the time, in a production of Vivat! Vivat Regina! Then she talked me into playing his wet nurse, who had no lines. And I realized that she had tricked me into getting onstage. After the performance I saw her in her dressing room, and she was singing to herself, 'Duck to water, duck to water.'"
Now Torn is acting onstage with Estelle Parsons, who not only is an actress of her mother's generation but, like Page, is a product of the Actors Studio. "One of the main reasons I took this tour," Torn explains, "is because actors today hear stories about the great national tours that used to be, but it's not something we get to do anymore. Then there's the opportunity to be around Estelle. As an actress, when you're Estelle's age, you want to be doing what she's doing. You want that career. You want that amount of energy. She's quite astonishing. She doesn't sit in her room all day waiting for the performance. She's very active. She goes to the gym every day. She's out, and she loves to see wherever we are. She's very curious about museums. Nothing slows her down, as far as I can tell. And when we're onstage together, she surprises me at every single performance. This tour is historical, and I wanted to be up close to witness it."