American Stage had its 2011-12 season all set, centered around a production of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, when it got word that the rights to stage August: Osage County by Tracy Letts were available.
"We couldn't pass that up,'' says Todd Olson, producing artistic director of the theater, who ended up dropping the O'Neill classic from the schedule. "When August came through, I thought there was no way we can do that and Long Day's Journey Into Night in the same season, because in some ways, Tracy Letts is a new kind of O'Neill.''
Letts' play, originally staged by Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago and then on Broadway, takes place at a truth-telling reunion of three generations of the Weston clan in rural Oklahoma. With a cast of 13, and running more than three hours, it is an epic saga of dysfunction. In 2008, it won the Tony Award for best new play and Pulitzer Prize for drama.
"I think it's the American myth of the family exploded,'' says Olson, who will direct the production. "It's one breathtaking scene after another. Just when you think it can't go darker, it goes darker. There is so much we relate to that we don't want to relate to. There are things said in this play that just aren't said in other plays.''
Because August: Osage County is such a sprawling affair, American Stage is planning to perform it at the larger Palladium Theater, a few blocks from its own theater in downtown St. Petersburg. Olson says the company is also talking with management of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa about bringing the production there, as it did with Anna in the Tropics in 2004.
American Stage has another high-profile play on next season's agenda with Red, Jonathan Logan's two-actor drama about artist Mark Rothko, which won the 2010 Tony for best new play. Olson is exploring the possibility of co-producing the work with other Florida theaters. The season's second play, Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband, is a coproduction with Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, where Olson will first direct it this June.
The company continues its annual performance of a play from August Wilson's Century Cycle with Seven Guitars, about the death of a blues singer. It will be the fifth production to be done from Wilson's 10 plays chronicling African-American life in the 20th century. This month, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom set an attendance record at the theater, with more than 5,700 tickets sold. Another Wilson play, Fences, ranks No. 3 on the theater's attendance list. (No. 2 is Driving Miss Daisy.)
"We always thought back in the day that August Wilson would be our risky choice of the year,'' Olson says. "And it's turned out to be one of our most commercial choices, and we can count on an audience for it.''
American Stage's production of Seven Guitars, to be directed by Bob Devin Jones, has been invited to be performed at an August Wilson festival in Pittsburgh, where nine of the 10 plays are set, in 2012.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show will be the 33rd annual American Stage in the Park show, following last year's hit production of Hair and this year's much-anticipated Rent. Olson says the popular TV show Glee tipped the balance.
"When Glee did an episode on Rocky Horror, we had a board meeting the next day and board members were going on and on about it,'' he says. "We've always thought about it, but thought it wasn't family enough. But with Hair and now Rent, we're crossing into new ground, making it possible for Rocky Horror to happen. What Hair taught us is that the park show doesn't have to be family-friendly. I think Rent is the same. Rocky Horror is a little bawdy, a little sexy, provocative, off the beaten track, and I think that's okay.''
Rounding out the season are Vanishing Point, a musical fantasy about Aimee Semple McPherson, Amelia Earhart and Agatha Christie by Rob Hartmann, Liv Cummins and Scott Keys; and The Foreigner, a comedy by Larry Shue. Each speaks to the demographics and taste of the audience at American Stage, which has 3,192 subscribers this season.
"Seventy percent of our audience is female, and we think Vanishing Point, with its three iconic women characters, will appeal to them,'' Olson says. "We did a survey and found that 60 percent of our audience want to see more comedies.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.