Lucinda Breeding: The rise of an actress

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David Minton/DRC file photo
Barbara (Dena Dunn, leaning over) asserts herself with her mother, Violet (Jeannene Abney, reclining), in Denton Community Theatre’s “August: Osage County.” Dunn’s performance crackled during this crucial scene of the recent production.

Sometimes, a talented performer stays under the radar, disappearing into characters so thoroughly that you don’t know you’re watching an actor.

It takes an intuition and a healthy restraint for a performer to become a character.

Denton has had its share of performers over the years who have given much more than they have to on the avocational stage. You’ve seen them bring hours of study to the Campus Theatre, and then carry on as if they were just plunged into this situation — this moment — and are along for the ride with the rest of us. They convince us they don’t know how all of this mess on stage will resolve. It’s a rare treat.

In Denton, one such performer is Dena Dunn, who just finished the run of Denton Community Theatre’s August: Osage County.

Dunn played the role of Barbara Weston Fordham, the eldest child of a brutally dysfunctional family brought together by the disappearance of the patriarch, a washed-up poet (at least as stage regular Fred Cassell played it) who released his literary talent so that he’d be a vessel for bile and whiskey.

Dunn’s performance was deliciously restrained. When Barbara returns to the Weston house, a garish place festering with equal parts antipathy and heat (Violet Weston, the drug-addicted, cancer-stricken matriarch of this brooding, jealous clan, never turns on the air conditioning). It’s August in Oklahoma’s Osage County, and many a reference is made to the suffocating temperature in the three-story, careworn home.

Out of all her castmates, it was Dunn who wore the scripted heat like a premature burial shroud swaddling her shoulders. Pulling and tugging at her costume, Dunn translated the sweltering discomfort — both physical and emotional — of returning to a home where love and affection were nipped in the bud by drink, by barbed wit and deflection. The Westons are stewing in their own loathing, and they blunt nothing for their audience.

Dunn shared the stage with some of Denton’s finest actresses — Jeannene Abney as the brittle Violet and Connie Lane as the long-suffering sister Ivy. But it was Dunn’s scenes with another Denton stage regular, John Evarts, that really demonstrate the actress’ growth. She has great timing — dangerously sad in one moment, and hilarious just in time to deliver us from sinking utterly.

Evarts played the doughy, daffy professor Bill Fordham, a boob who seems to think the couple’s teenage daughter isn’t in crisis, but going through a phase. Fordham has left his wife for another woman. He tries to comfort the woman he’s rejected with cringingly silly jokes, something that likely attracted Barbara Weston in the first flush of love, only to repel her after she became Mrs. Weston Fordham.

But they have a child (played by an affecting Amanda Leavell) and enough life shared between them that they can carry on the charade just a little longer. And as so often happens in real life, there is still something left:

“You’re never coming back to me, are you?” Barbara says, sagging into the old couch of Violet’s home.

“Never say never,” Bill parries.

As Barbara, Dunn gave a subtle wince. “Never means no, though, doesn’t it?”

Dunn kept her character’s pain reined in. She flinches when her estranged husband touches her, and honestly grieves his absconded affections.

But Dunn cycles honestly through a churning washtub of emotions: the fear that her father won’t be found alive; rage at her mother’s perpetual inability to manage herself; exuberance on discovering that she’s not the only one in the family hiding something.

Dunn’s performance really crackled during a crucial scene in which Barbara takes hold of her pathetic mother, balls up a fist and declares that she’ll be making the decisions now.

A lesser actress would have propelled herself through the moment on anger alone. But Dunn laid her character bare, winded with fear and years of frustration and energized by the newfound authority she’s claimed from Violet.

Much of the credit belongs to the playwright, Tracy Letts, who earned a Pulitzer Prize for the play. And then there’s the drive of director Mildred A. Peveto, who has a habit of getting better performances out of her actors than any other director on the company’s roster.

Most of the congratulations go to Dena Dunn, though. She’s an actress who has played small roles and big ones, and an actress who surrendered herself to the wholly human Barbara Fordham. Audiences don’t always appreciate the courage it takes to play a three-dimensional character, and when a performer shows us those proverbial warts without reservation, well, the audience can have a distaste for the actor for risks honestly taken.

August: Osage County is a mesmerizing play about generational pain and alienation. It’s the sort of play — and Dunn is the sort of actress — that makes you yearn for more great literature with meaty roles for women over 40.

That might be a lot to wish for. In the meantime, though, local theater buffs can take notice when Dunn joins a project. She’s emerged as an underrated player with a lot to give as an actress (something that somehow slipped by us during Smoke on the Mountain about 15 years ago).

With her skill and stage smarts, Dunn will make the most of any role she accepts.

LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877. Her e-mail address is cbreeding@dentonrc.com.


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