Oregon Shakespeare Festival actress Judith-Marie Bergan has brilliantly portrayed numerous iconic characters, including Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s “Anthony and Cleopatra” and Lyubov Ranevskaya in Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.” But the role that has had audiences reeling is her stunning and haunting portrayal of the acerbic, drug-addicted Violet, the destructive matriarch of the overtly dysfunctional Weston family in Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County.” Bergan and I met over coffee one summer afternoon. This is the first of a two-part interview; the second will publish in this space on Oct. 10.
EH: How did the role of Violet affect you?
JMB: I did warn my husband, “I don’t know what mood I’m going to be in this particular year.” But as it turned out, I didn’t carry it home. I was concerned because you are digging into some really deep, weird, dark, hard places. You conjure up stuff that you usually keep buried in yourself. I guess I must have gotten it out all on stage. When you’re doing a role like that, you think about it all of the time. The challenge of the actor is to go deeper and keep within what is directed.
You still are going to be different during the run of a show than you are at the opening. It is going to go deeper. It does take a run, and doing it over and over again, to make you sink into deeper territory. You always wish you were reviewed during the middle of a show.
One of the things I related to is the different generation. I’m not quite her age. I played a little older than I am. But I’m of that generation enough to know what our collective past is and what my parents were like, that whole thing of drug addiction and alcoholism. In my generation of parents, that was kind of common.
What saves the play is the humor in it. Almost the entire family has a certain kind of wit that saves it from being all-consuming and dark.
EH: Did you prepare differently for this role than you do for others?
JMB: I did a lot of different kinds of research. I spent a lot of time with prescription pill addicts. The Jackson County Methadone Center set me up with five women. I got a wonderful interview. It was so illuminating and these women were so strong, so brave. They just really flat-out told their stories. They were from all walks of life. They told me how drug addiction affects you, physically. I also did a lot of research on aphasia. Because Violet has taken so many drugs, it affects her speech; she uses the wrong word and can’t find the word she wants.
I did research on everything about that time and who she was. I went to Pawhuska, Oklahoma, which is where the play takes place. I went there with Catherine Coulson, who played my sister in the play. We spent an entire weekend in Pawhuska. It was really fascinating. There’s only one of everything. We picked out the house that they lived in, where the school was, and the hair salon. They are all brought up in the play. We wanted to have that background and firsthand knowledge of the place. They are just those subliminal elements in the performance.
Catherine Coulson and I have always been friends, but it just sort of bonded us in that sister way. Towards the end of that trip, we started calling each other by our character names. I’d say, “Oh Mattie Fae, just stop that.”