Tracy Letts’ searing, dark comedy about an outrageously dysfunctional contemporary family, August: Osage County, is having its regional premiere at Wright State University’s Festival Playhouse in a co-production with Dayton’s Human Race Theatre Company (HRTC). The play, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award in 2008, is an anomaly: three acts, more than three hours long and a direct descendent of Tennessee Williams, with a lot of the flavor of William Faulkner in its tone.
Time magazine named the show, set in a blistering August summer in Oklahoma, the “best play of the decade,” and I agree with that assessment. The heat is inescapable in this show, a hell of a piece of theater — with the emphasis on “hell.”
In the prologue we meet Beverly Weston (Scott Stoney, who co-directed the piece with HRTC Artistic Director Marsha Hanna), an aging, alcoholic poet. In a boozy monologue he describes his own sense of failure and his wife Violet’s parallel descent into addiction to prescription drugs. He’s in the process of hiring Johnna (Rainbow Dickerson) to look after Violet (Susanne Marley), who has withdrawn into a self-medicated cesspool of anger and frustration.
That’s the last we see of Beverly. His disappearance brings together the extended Weston clan, especially his three adult daughters, Barbara (Kristie Berger), Ivy (Kelsey Hopkins) and Karen (Alex Sunderhaus), plus Violet’s Southern-fried sister Mattie (Madeleine Casto). While all of these women have significant others, not to mention a few oddball offspring, the men and the kids are mere cannon fodder in the ongoing warfare between the women.
Their secrets, lies and long-standing grudges boil over in the August heat and the post-funeral family pressure cooker. It’s a delicious soup of writing and acting — crude, revelatory, shocking and astonishingly engaging.
Of the 13 actors, six are students at Wright State. Several of them play roles well beyond their years, mostly in a very convincing manner. Casto’s Mattie and Jason David Collins as her beleaguered husband Charles are especially good as a feuding couple approaching the age of 60. Hopkins and Sunderhaus play two of the Weston sisters, in their mid-40s, with a good sense of two very different middle-aged women — Ivy is the dutiful daughter who has tried to care for her parents, while Karen is the flighty baby living a self-centered but unsatisfying life in faraway places.
Boiled down to its essence, however, August: Osage County is ultimately about the titanic battle between two “hollow women,” Violet and her eldest daughter Barbara. Marley and Berger are memorable in these roles, women who can barely stand one another and who are ultimately revealed to be cut from the same cloth.
Marley wholly captures Violet’s emptied-out soul of disoriented drug addiction, but she also has a snap of intelligence that lets us see the woman she once was. Berger is even more expressive as the frustrated, confused Barbara — angry with her cheating husband and her petulant daughter, clueless how to relate to her sisters and unwittingly turning into her harridan of a mother. When Ivy, fueled by a shocking revelation, storms out in the third act after a scene of screaming obscenities and broken dishes, she tosses back at the two of them, “There’s no difference.”
Letts, one of America’s most produced contemporary playwrights (his other works include Killer Joe, Bug and Superior Donuts), has crafted a masterpiece of complexity and interpersonal dynamics with this play. It’s also a piece of masterful writing. In Beverly’s opening monologue, the failed poet cites lines by T. S. Eliot and gives a book of Eliot’s dour verse to Johnna. Three hours later, as the play concludes down amidst the rubble of a destroyed family, survived only by Violet, the housekeeper cradles the crushed woman and sings, “This is the way the world ends,” a line from Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.” We don’t hear it, but the final line of Eliot’s poem is “Not with a bang but a whimper.”
There’s more bang than whimper in August: Osage County, but the sum total is one powerful production of man’s — or in this case woman’s — inhumanity to others.
The production opened Sept. 23 and continues through Oct. 10. It’s definitely worth an hour’s drive to the Wright State campus to see this solid production of an important work of theater.
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