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Fearsome Family Ties... August: Osage County

May 20, 2008 - by Ellis Whitman
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Tracy Letts is a playwright who gravitates to the jugular, and not always metaphorically. He has no problem tossing his characters into a fishbowls overflowing with radioactive water. He did it with Killer Joe, he did it with Bug, and now, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County he brings it on home – literally – with enough vitriolic humor to power the town of Pawhuska, Oklahoma (pop. 3,629), where the play is set.

An Oklahoma native, Letts moved to Chicago when he was 20 and, in 2002, joined the legendary Steppenwolf Theatre Company who debuted August last summer and brought it to New York several months later.

Most of the original cast is still with production, thankfully, since this is an ensemble show with a family – the Westons – at its crux.

“At each step along the way — from the first reading to the production now running on Broadway — August gained vitality through the participation of an ensemble of artists with a long history of collaboration,” wrote Steppenwolf Literary Assistant Joy Meads on the company’s blog.

And it shows, this theatrical family dynamic built on familiarity and trust.

No wonder the production shines on so many crucial levels, from the script (obviously), to the cast (oh, my yes); to direction -- under Steppenwolf member Anna D. Shapiro. No simple task, I assure you, since at any given moment a dozen of the play’s 13-characters can be found in and around Todd Rosenthal’s amazing three-story-house set, nipping at each other’s vulnerable spots or airing their scruffy laundry. (I guess I should mention this is one feisty clan, with the matriarch of the family downing downers while others toke away on pot as the rest of the kin tosses back whatever alcohol is on hand.)

The show opens with Weston paterfamilias, Beverly (Michael McGuire), sipping bourbon while interviewing a Native American housekeeper, Johanna (Kimberly Guerro). The scene has Beverly matter-of-factly quoting T.S. Eliot (“Life is very long,”) and John Berryman (“The world is gradually becoming a place where I do not care to be anymore”), followed by a frank and disconcerting portrait of his wife, Violet (Deanna Dunagan):

“She takes pills, sometimes a great many. And they affect…among other things, her equilibrium. Fortunately, the pills she takes eliminate her need for equilibrium. So she falls when she rambles…but she doesn’t ramble much.”

No, she doesn’t ramble much, but when she does during her most pharmaceutically enhanced moments, she lets loose with a barrage of slurred barbs. Even in her more compos mentis moments, Violet’s a destructive monster mom, armed with an endless supply of vinegar to pour onto her three daughters’ emotional blisters, scabs and lacerations.

The daughters –  Barbara (Amy Morton), menopausal and raw from her  decomposing marriage;  Ivy (Sally Murphy), wrapped in an insecurity blanket she’s desperate to shed; and Karen (Mariann Mayberry), pinning her future happiness on a morally-bereft fiancé and a honeymoon in Belize – return to the family homestead to help Violet cope after Beverly suddenly bows out of the mise-en-scene.

And they arrive bearing baggage: for Barbara, it’s husband, Bill (Jeff Perry) and daughter, Jean (Molly Ransom); for Ivy, it’s a sticky secret; and for Karen, it’s Steve (Brian Kerwin), her intended. Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae (Rondi Reed), her husband, Charles (Francis Guinan), and son, Little Charles (Ian Barford) make up the balance of dysfunctional relatives contributing to this divinely pernicious family reunion.

In the end, August: Osage County shows us that no matter how odd, how nasty or how narcissistic our parents, cousins, aunts, uncles and siblings can be, they’re amateurs when stacked up against the Westons.

And here’s the kicker, Lett’s 3 hour and 20 minute epic is as funny as it is heartbreaking. The time flies by in a wonderfully manic blur. Which is why I, for one, plan to see it again…. and again… and no doubt you will, too.

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