Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Masterpiece That Is August: Osage County


In a year when the play is the crowned jewel of Broadway, I have found myself watching actors get their story on without having to break into song. Although, oddly enough, several of those actors did dance since four of the plays I saw had fairly impactful and deliberate music. Yesterday's "play with music" was this little ditty of a tale called August: Osage County. The Steppenwolf production of Tracy Letts' dysfunctional tour de force had an advance of $3M, has just extended its run, is guaranteed a bevy of Tony Awards and will most likely garner the Pulitzer.

Our rear mezzanine seats came complete with militant usher. Or as my husband likes to refer to her, the preshow. As she deftly sat her audience, she referred to the rear mezz as "her section." I am pretty sure this woman has guided me to my seat before. Not sure if she was an Imperial Theatre staple or not. I would have loved to see her wrestle the digital camera from the unsuspecting woman snapping a photo. "That is copyrighted material!" shouted our usher, gesturing toward the stage at the three-story set which, truth be told, is the real preshow.

The family tree in the Playbill suggests you might want to get familiar with the lay of the land before you head on over to the Weston house. After studying the house and the hierarchy, I felt eager with the anticipation of what lay ahead in the next 3 hours and 20 minutes.

Act 1. Scene 1. Patriarch Beverly Weston, portrayed by the playwright's father Dennis Letts, delivers a whiskey-soaked speech about the state of affairs in his Oklahoma home. For the quiet Johnna (Kimberly Guerrero), the poet/professor paints a brutally honest picture of life amidst his books and his bottle. That picture comes further to life in a brief interruption by his pill-popping wife, Violet (Deanna Dunegan). After Violet recoils and retreats to sleep off her drug-induced stupor, Beverly hires the girl as their housekeeper, or more appropriately, their caretaker.

Days later, Daddy Weston journeys into one of those sultry August nights, never to return. Enter the family, descending like vultures upon that house in the plains, with its window shades sealed with tape. First dysfunctional lot to arrive, Violet's belittling sister Mattie Fae (Rondi Reed), her immasculated husband Charlie (Francis Guinan) and the Weston's "lost child", Ivy (Sally Murphy), who is geographically predisposed to keeping an eye on her parents.

However, it is Barbara (Amy Morton), the eldest Weston daughter, whose arrival Violet awaits before emerging from her cave. With her pot smoking daughter (Madeleine Martin) and philandering husband (Jeff Perry) in tow, Barbara takes the reins of this careening apple cart while navigating her mother's venomous tongue. One the apple cart is settled, or passed out, She and her husband prepare for bed. After her husband dismisses her father's disappearance as a bender, she pronounces, "My father's dead!" and turns her back on her husband. Deep into that peaceful night's slumber, the household is stirred by the flashing lights of the sheriff's patrol car and the news of Beverly's death. Sheriff Gilbeau (Troy West), who happens to be a former beau of Barbara's, asks the family for someone to accompany him to the morgue to identify the body. Unable to awake Violet from her Darvon haze, a bereft and unwilling Barbara leaves with the sheriff.

Following Beverly's funeral, Karen (Mariann Mayberry), the youngest of Vi and Bev's offspring, helps her sister prep the table for the post-funeral meal. Barbara, thirsty for her wine, listens to her sister spout platitudes of self-help. Meanwhile, Violet attempts to coax the mousy Ivy into a beguiling dress. Under her mother's icy gaze, Ivy declares that she has found someone. We soon discover that this someone is, in fact, her first cousin, diminutively called Little Charlie (Ian Barford). The men, including Karen's lecherous fiance Steve (Brian Kerwin), return with the wine and everyone begins to drink.

Young Jean, who spends the majority of the play tuning herself out, immerses herself in Lon Cheney's Phantom of the Opera. The television, invisibly the down center focal point, serves the escape route for several characters throughout the evening. Karen's fiance, also attempting to allude the madness, bonds with Jean. He notices the lingering aroma of marijuana and promises the 14-year-old a Florida variety like none other she's tried. Later.

The family is called to dinner. And with alcohol and painkillers lubricating the wheels on the locomotive that is Violet Weston, we watch this train wreck of a family eat a meal. In real time. Haunted by the ghosts of her own past, Violet picks and claws at everyone until there are nothing but bloody caracasses at her feet. Like many meals with a kids table and ample amounts of alcohol, it does not end well. In fact, it ends with Barbara wrapping her fingers around her mother's throat.

Desperately trying to take charge of a situation more volatile than a tsunami, Barbara orders her family to scour the house for Violet's pills. Secret after secret comes tumbling out of drunken mouths while the women reminisce, the men play cards with Jean and Little Charles watches television. Suspicious that her son has become intimate with Ivy, Mattie Fae divulges a secret of her own to Barbara and then saddles her with the responsibility of telling her sister. Hours later, with the household fast asleep or passed out, Steve and Jean share a joint. Confident that Jean's judgment is significantly impaired, Steve asks her to show him her breasts. In a vain attempt to lure her more, he offers to show her his wares. He turns off the light and there is an uncomfortable moment of darkness that is quickly interrupted by Johnna and her buzzkilling frying pan.

The powder keg now exploded, the family begins to abandon ship, wagging their accusing fingers all the while. Ever quixotic, Karen states her intent to remain with her pedophiliac fiance because, after all, she will be honeymooning in Belize.

Before Bill leaves with Jean, in a rare tender moment, Barbara asks him if he is ever coming back. When he answers as she anticipates, she bemoans herself for being a failure. As a wife, a mother, a sister. But she says nothing about failing as a daughter. Just as with Beverly's omnipresence, Letts makes the most poignant statements with elements that are unseen or unheard.

In the final round, Vi delivers a one-two punch: you need to stop canoodling your brother and, yes, I knew. Ivy retreats in horror and despair, leaving Barbara alone with Vi. In a gasp eliciting moment, Violet's forked tongue lashes at Barbara, accusing her of being responsible for her father's death. Numbed by the realization that she has indeed become her mother, Barbara takes the keys from her purse, stumbles out onto the porch and leaves. Headed for anywhere but there.

In his play, Letts brings to life the adage that we either become our parents or marry them. For many, that metamorphasis is one that is gladly endured. For the Westons, however, it a downward spiral of devastation, with no bottom in sight.

There is not a weak link among this cast comprised mostly of Chicago-based actors. I did, however, recognize Kimberly Guerrero from the Cigar Store Indian episode of Seinfeld and I did see Madeleine Martin as the cross-bearing daughter from The Pillowman. However, she was silent in that production and in August I found her voice to be a little nasal and grating at times.

The men, who could have easily been swallowed up by the massiveness of the female characters, should not be dismissed as the lesser sex in this estrogen charged story. Each of them helps the women to navigate the tumultuous Weston waters with great aplomb. Most notable, the gentle delivery of Dennis Letts' lonely professor and Jeff Perry's resolved Bill.

While all of the women have their shining moments throughout the performance, without doubt the most scintillating performances come from Deanna Dunegan and Amy Morton. From the frenetic highs to the devastating lows, they attack these meaty roles with no fear. Because of their flawless performances, you leave the theatre filled with Violet and Barbara's pain and drained by their sorrows. The 2008 Tony Awards will find these ladies in a head-to-head battle for Best Actress in a Play. Dunegan will most likely walk away with the award but it will be a close race.

Subject matter notwithstanding, August: Osage County is riddled with classic one-line zingers, too numerous to single out a favorite. Thankfully, amidst all the tragedy, Letts gives you the opportunity to experience the greatest emotion to be felt in a theatre: laughter through tears. In fact, during each of the intermissions, the 9-year-old girl that sat behind us kept telling her parents how funny she thought it was. Yeah. I'll give you a moment to digest that...

The limited run engagement of August: Osage County closes on April 13, 2008. While this masterpiece is bound to live in perpetuity at regional and community theatres, I implore you to make every effort to experience this life-altering piece of theatre during its Broadway run.

But please, leave your 9-year-old at home.


Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

So glad to know you enjoyed this almost as much as I did. I'm seeing it again on the perfect day: Valentine's Day!

Esther said...

Great review! I saw it after Steve raved about the Chicago production, and I'm so glad I did.

You touched on a lot of what I loved about "August: Osage County." First, I think that Tracy Letts has writen some extraordinary roles for women. As a caregiver, I could definitely relate to some of what Amy Morton's character was going through. Deana Dunagan is just mesmerizing. What a bravura performance. From the moment she kind of stumbles down the stairs at the beginning of the play, she totally inhabits that character.

The women's roles are so good, they do run the risk of overshadowing the men a little bit.

And Letts' dialogue is so witty. He has some very pointed, and perceptive, things to say about the Greatest Generation.

I also loved the banter between Rondi Reed and Francis Guinan's characters. And I thought Kimberly Guerrero did a lot without a lot of dialogue. I was drawn to just watching her curled up on the bed reading on the third floor. (I thought the set was amazing. What a symbol of the family's messy lives).