It's a familiar scene in Lexington theater: a who's-who of local stage talent gathering to take on a weighty script under the guidance of esteemed stage director Joe Ferrell. The major difference is that it usually happens under an open sky in warmer weather.
"It's the same people, but you don't have to worry about rain and you can leave your citronella at home," says Tom Phillips, one of numerous veterans of the Lexington Shakespeare Festival and SummerFest who are starring in SummerFest's first off-season, indoor production.
Tracy Letts' August: Osage County, which has a two-weekend run at the Downtown Arts Center, makes good on a longstanding ambition to bring the summertime plays at The Arboretum indoors for a handful of school-year productions.
"It was time," says Ferrell, artistic director of SummerFest.
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For more than a decade, there has been discussion of taking the talent and sensibilities of the summer shows — Lexington Shakespeare Festival until 2006 and SummerFest since 2007 — around the calendar. Last year, paths started opening up.
Joe Artz last year left his post as general manager of SummerFest to become the director of the Downtown Arts Center, providing a friendly entree to the Main Street venue. Artz had to leave that post earlier this year for personal reasons. But the die had been cast.
"If you looked around downtown in the last few years, there was not a lot happening downtown in terms of theater," Ferrell says. Financial turmoil had led to Actors Guild of Lexington leaving the DAC for a suburban venue. "So we thought, 'OK, we can fill a niche that is important to us and will hopefully bring people downtown to see things."
Ferrell says that since that decision, a number of other organizations have been born, including Project SEE Theatre and On the Verge, both of which are presenting at the DAC this fall. To Ferrell, that's even better, being part of an active theater scene that includes Balagula Theatre at Natasha's Bistro and Bar.
To make its fall debut, SummerFest has selected one of America's most celebrated recent plays. The three-act August: Osage County, a big Southern family drama in the tradition of Tennessee Williams, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Tony Award for best play in 2008.
It's the story of the family of Beverly Weston (played by Herald-Leader contributing music writer Walter Tunis), a patriarch who appears only in the first scene and whose subsequent disappearance sets the events of the play in motion. His daughters return home with their significant others, kids and lots of baggage.
To accommodate the play, which was presented on a three-level set on Broadway and in other major productions, scenic designer Dathan Powell created a set that runs the length of the DAC's black-box theater, with the audience seated "tennis court-style," as Ferrell refers to it, on each side.
The cast includes local stage mainstays Susan Wigglesworth as Beverly's pill-addicted wife, Violet, and Bess Morganas her daughter Barbara in a veritable act-off as the drama escalates and the family goes into a downward spiral.
"It is a great play for them to be starting out with," says Phillips, who plays Steve, the sleazy fiancé of one of the daughters.
Ferrell and newly named SummerFest general manager Wes Nelson say it is the start of more to come. In the immediate future, July's production of The Rocky Horror Show, directed by Nelson, will be revived at Buster's Billiards and Backroom on Oct. 30 and 31. Then, there will be a spring production, though Ferrell and Nelson said the title and dates have not been set.
"We want to continue," Ferrell says. "We want very much to be part of the producing community that looks at stuff year-round."