2017 True West Award: Haley Johnson and Sydney Parks Smith

2017 True West Awards. Haley Johnson. Sydney Parks Smith


Day 4: Haley Johnson and Sydney Parks Smith

August: Osage County
Vintage Theatre, Aurora
OpenStage Theatre, Fort Collins

By John Moore
Senior Arts Journalist

“I’m in charge now!”

It’s one of the most visceral, gut-scraping lines you’ll ever hear in a theatre, and it marks a dramatic turning point in Tracy Letts‘ Pulitzer-winning family fracas August: Osage County. In that one moment, the eldest daughter of perhaps the must acidic matriarch in the American theatrical canon forcibly wrests that crown right out of her mother’s clenched fingers. Only the crown, in this case, is a pill bottle. But Barbara is not rescuing her mother. Not by a long shot. She’s becoming her.

True West Haley Johnson Sydney Parks SmithThe mother is Violet Weston, a pained and profane Okie with cancer of the mouth — medically and metaphorically. Violet pops out furious epithets — most aimed at her three daughters — as quickly as she pops in pills. Her spawn all bear varying degrees of the inherited burns they surely will pass down to their own children. Seriously, Violet is a sniper on par with a Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant. It’s a bucket-list role for any seasoned female actor.

But the part of Barbara, a Boulder mom whose marriage is crumbling, presents a plum challenge all its own. And in 2017, we got to see two highly accomplished area actors tackle it in different but effective ways: Sydney Parks Smith for OpenStage & Company in Fort Collins and Haley Johnson for Vintage Theatre in Aurora. And they had formidable scene partners in Colorado legends Denise Freestone and Deborah Persoff, respectively, as their poisoned Vi’s.

Parks wears Barbara’s accumulating disappointments like a suit of armor, and she’s just itching to take it into battle. Johnson, who has made her mark for a decade playing wounded birds, grew teeth here that eventually sprouted into fangs. The mother-daughter conflict builds to a battle of ill-wills that left audiences gasping from Fort Collins to Aurora. All culminating in that one haunting line — “I’m in charge now!” — that can be delivered every which way from a declarative whisper to a savage declaration of war. We’re witnessing a brutal metamorphosis where Barbara becomes the unshrinking Violet.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

The two actors have more than Barbara Fordham in common: Smith is the Associate Artistic Director of OpenStage and Johnson is the Producing Artistic Director of the new Benchmark Theatre, which is finishing up its first season with the world premiere of a freaky-fun new play called Smokefall, playing through Dec. 23 at the Buntport Theater.

Haley Johnson Sydney Parks SmithSmith won the Colorado Theatre Guild’s Henry Award and the OpenStage OPUS Award for Outstanding Actress for her performance as Barbara. Northern Colorado theatre critic Tom Jones called her performance “dynamite.”

Says OpenStage Director Dulcie Willis: “Sydney is a highly passionate, focused and dynamic actor. Her work as Barbara perfectly illustrated her deep commitment to nuanced character development. She understood the play inside and out and never, ever stopped working to find the most effective moment-to-moment choices in each scene. Her natural strength and intense zest for life served her thoughtful approach to Barbara while leading the entire cast through a beautiful and challenging piece of theatre. She really was the family heroine of our production.”

(Photos above: Sydney Parks Smith, left and Haley Johnson. Photos by Joe Hovorka and RDG Photography.)

Says Vintage Theatre Director Bernie Cardell: “The magic of Haley Johnson is that not only can she tap into the broken heart of her characters, she can also find their humor.  She is not afraid to reveal her own wounds in order to find the deepest expression of truth on stage. Plus, she’s kind of cool.”

The origin of the poison: Our interview with Tracy Letts

Said Denver Theatre Perspectives reviewer Michael Mulhern: “Haley Johnson showed incredible range from fragile and bitter to powerful matriarch, and from defeated daughter to hopeful independence.”

Haley Johnson: 2017 at a glance
Johnson is a graduate of Florida State University and the University of Colorado Denver. She has worked all around the metro area, including the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company, Edge Theatre, Miners Alley Playhouse and Spotlight Theatre Company. Notable roles include Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, Harper Pitt in Angels in America, Becca in Rabbit Hole and Jessie in ‘Night, Mother. She is also the producing artistic director of the new Benchmark Theatre.

  • The Nether, Morris, Benchmark Theatre
  • August: Osage County, Barbara Fordham, Vintage Theatre

Sydney Parks Smith: 2017 at a glance

Smith has performed and directed with OpenStage Theatre in Fort Collins for the past 20 years and serves as the company’s  Associate Artistic Director. Notable roles include Claire in Proof, Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, Belinda in Noises Off and Hermia in Dead Man’s Cell Phone. As a director, her credits include Stage Kiss, True West, The Book of Liz and Dirty Blonde. She received the Founder’s Award for her outstanding contributions to OpenStage & Company.

  • The Flick, Director, OpenStage
  • Don’t Dress for Dinner, Production Manager, OpenStage
  • Bright Ideas, Production Manager, OpenStage
  • August: Osage County, Barbara Fordham, Production Manager, OpenStage


The True West Awards, now in their 17th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from 2017 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist. His daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org

A look back at the history of the True West Awards

The 2017 True West Awards

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