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The Awkward Son

Date: Aug 05, 2008


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Fans of HBO's gritty, novelistic series The Wire know Prysbylewski, the tall, overly sensitive young cop-turned-schoolteacher who struggled to do right from within, and often in spite of, Baltimore's public institutions. Playing "Prez" for The Wire's five tumultuous seasons was Jim True-Frost, the Steppenwolf-steeped actor who's now appearing on Broadway in the role of a similarly cowed, slightly blurry young man, Little Charles, in the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning juggernaut August: Osage County. (True-Frost takes the place of Ian Barford, who originated the role in its Chicago run and brought it Broadway last fall.)

"I'm actually pretty sharp, and I think my roles over the years have spanned a pretty broad spectrum," True-Frost says of the admitted "congruence" between the not-always-up-to-speed Prez and Little Charles. "But these aren't the only two dimwits I've played."

Of course, no self-respecting actor actually conceives of a character he plays in such starkly judgmental terms.

"Prez isn't a dimwit, actually, he just misses the ball," True-Frost says. "And Charles has good intentions, and when he's got his confidence, you see a little bit of what you don't see much onstage, which is what he could be—the things Ivy trusts and admires in him."

His love interest Ivy, played by Sally Murphy, happens to be Little Charles' cousin—and that's just one of a Pandora's box full of family secrets that fester among the Oklahoma Westons and explode into the open in the course of the play's epic three and a half hours. Though True-Frost doesn't have the show's largest role, by any means, is that running time nevertheless a bit of an endurance test?

"As long as I do what I'm used to doing, which is to show up a little bit early and gear my day around being on my game every night, then it's OK," True-Frost explains. "The thing that less stage time allows me is more energy. What Amy [Morton] and Estelle [Parsons] are doing is so much more demanding, just in terms of physical energy. I don't feel nearly as drained as they must feel."

More importantly, despite the intensity of the conflicts depicted onstage, True-Frost finds the experience of doing the show "really rewarding. It's not a terrible ride. There's so much energy from the audience and the community that has responded so positively to it."

The amount of "emotional energy flying around" onstage also helps True-Frost do his job.

"A lot of what I do is kind of channeling and containing of a lot of what's going on around me," True-Frost says. "Part of the performance is me trying to create this character, but another big part of it is just being open to what's going on—there's so much hurt and betrayal and anger and sadness there that if I just listen and pay attention to all that, it puts Little Charles where he needs to be."

As dysfunctional as the Westons are, they've been brought to life by a "family" of sorts—one which has every reason to fall apart but is nevertheless still going strong after three decades. That "family," of couse, is Steppenwolf, the Chicago-based theatre company that has regularly done world-class work and has repeatedly shown it to New York audiences, from True West to Grapes of Wrath to Buried Child.

In fact, like many members of Steppenwolf, True-Frost is no longer based in Chicago at all: He lived for some time in New York and is now based in Cambridge, Mass., where his wife, Cora True-Frost, is a law lecturer at Harvard. Many other longtime members are based in Los Angeles or even Europe. How does such a far-flung company stay together?

"It's unique, and it's a constant balancing act for the company," True-Frost concedes. "They want to have enough presence of company members onstage to keep that critical mass and make it a uniquely Steppenwolf production, but they don't want to make everybody stay in Chicago." True-Frost, who moved away "almost 15 years ago," estimates that he goes back to do a show in Chicago "once very couple of years." Most productions there feature a combination of members from Chicago and from "the Diaspora."

In describing why he and his fellow members stick with Steppenwolf, True-Frost could be describing the sort of strong family ethic that's almost the diametric opposite of the frayed, damaging bonds of August: Osage County.

"Being in the company is a great but amorphous connection," True-Frost says. "It doesn't guarantee or oblige any amount of work from us, but it's something that by preference we continue to do."

Click here for more information about August: Osage County.