It’s past 9:30 p.m. on a Friday night in late September, and the cast of Company of Fools’ fall production, “August: Osage County”—an engrossing and exhaustive family drama that earned playwright Tracy Letts a Pulitzer Prize in 2008—has just wrapped an airtight rehearsal of the nearly three-hour performance. The 13 actors—spanning four decades in age, from a Boise State drama major to salt-and-pepper-haired stage veterans—look drained. Wearily, they gather around a sherbet-colored sleeper-sofa that serves as ground zero for the Weston clan’s plangent dysfunction.
“I’ve got about an hour of notes,” says director John Moon. “August” marks Moon’s Liberty Theatre debut—he was tapped from Richmond, Va., where Company of Fools was formed in 1992, to resurrect in Hailey one of Broadway’s biggest hits—but he speaks in the shorthand shared by his players, many of whom have acted with Fools since its infancy. Despite their fatigue, everyone gamely takes feedback—a testament to this theater group’s professionalism—as Moon leafs through his legal pad.
“Danny,” he says, addressing Fools artist Danielle Kennedy, who portrays testy Oklahoma matriarch Violet Weston. Small-boned, raspy-voiced, with sun-crisped skin, Kennedy is the physical opposite of Meryl Streep, who brought larger-than-life Violet to the big screen in 2013. Yet Kennedy, who first joined Fools in a 1997 production of Lee Blessing’s “Eleemosynary,” easily convinces as the chain-smoking, cancer-stricken Violet; the character’s incessant cussing and insults—mostly targeted at her three adult daughters—pack even more punch coming from someone of Ms. Kennedy’s diminutive size.
“Look at her boobs!” suggests Moon, recalibrating Kennedy’s line when greeting her newly developed granddaughter, Jean. The actress scribbles a reminder on her script. One by one, Moon addresses the performers, fine-tuning verbal tics or reblocking a scene to keep the play’s frenzied comedy light on its feet.
By Wednesday, the cast of “August: Osage County” has fully transformed into the hard-drinking, secret-keeping Westons, and Company of Fools has pulled off another smash a few months shy of its 20th anniversary in the Wood River Valley—a milestone that will be commemorated with a three-night retrospective and gala this January.
Today, Company of Fools is one of the Wood River Valley’s most beloved and entrenched institutions—in addition to live performance, the company offers theater education—so it’s hard to believe core artist Denise Simone when she said, a week after opening night, that she was “kicking and screaming” on the drive across the country with her then-husband and Fools founder, Rusty Wilson, in the fall of 1996. It was through an old college friend of Denise’s, however—Bruce Willis, owner of the Liberty with Demi Moore—that the Fools found a permanent home.
To John Glenn, another founding member who leads the company with Simone, the prospect of moving to Idaho was just as unthinkable. But thanks to Wilson’s vision and some behind-the-scenes plotting by Glenn’s now-husband and fellow Fool R. L. Rowsey (“Rusty called me and said, ‘Hey, I got R.L.’s letter, and we agree that it’s time.’ I said, ‘What letter?’” Glenn recalls with a laugh), he and Simone have endowed this community with a cultural tradition that will continue to entertain long after its founders have moved on.
“Why is 20 years a big deal?” Glenn asks rhetorically. “If we’re lucky, we get four of those—four chunks of 20—in our life. We’ve spent a quarter of our lives on this project.”
While the Fools’ repertoire has evolved in ambition and scope—Simone hopes to next stage Ayad Akhtar’s Tony-nominated rumination on Islam phobia, “Disgraced”—the tenets that have guided them since the beginning have never wavered.
“We’re still asking ourselves the same questions,” Simone says. “How do you hold onto joy? How do you serve joy to others?”
Glenn nods, adding: “We continue to search. We’re not happy being stagnant.”