Monday, April 9, 2012
Theater review: August: Osage County at Addison Theatre Center
This is a riveting production the area is not likely to behold for some time to come.
August in Oklahoma is nothing but brain-fryingly hot. Shimmery, sweltering heat makes you feel drunk and sick at the same time. Inside the Weston home, however, even without the blessed relief of air-conditioning, the atmosphere is icy, frozen. A husband and wife have gone about as far their separate ways as humanly possible. His best friend now is named Jack Daniels, Red label. Her closest companions are a family of pills whose names I cannot begin to spell. Each holes up at opposite ends of a quaint house out on the plains of the Midwest – joined in their isolation, together by being alone.
Thus begins August: Osage County, the multi-award winning play by Oklahoma native Tracy Letts (presented by WaterTower Theatre at Addison Theatre Center through April 29). Written during his days with Steppenwolf Theatre Company, his work traveled on to New York City and Broadway, and has been produced in the UK, Israel, Puerto Rico, Australia, several European countries, Argentina, and even an adaptation in India. All these diverse cultures believed, accepted and applauded a play whose characters I might consider only Okkies and Texans to truly understand. If that doesn’t prove the human condition is universal, I don’t know what does.
And this play is described as a dark comedy! A comedy it certainly is, and whether you think you should or not, there are many shocking slaps followed immediately by knee-slapping laughter. But dark is not an effective enough word to describe this play. It doesn’t just dip into darkness, August: Osage County fearlessly dives headfirst into an inky black, bottomless pool. And like that pool, there seems to be no terra firma to these characters’ lives; no one is who anyone believes them to be, whole generations are turned upside down, and only the strong get out alive.
In a long, opening monologue, Beverly Weston is explaining his and his wife’s life to Johnna, a Native American young woman he hires to care for the house and Violet. He was a one-time published poet of some notoriety but is now only surrounded by his beloved books. She is suffering from cancer and completely addicted to what was meant to treat her. Beverly and Violet have long since lost each other in a sea of alcohol and drugs. A family tragedy brings their three estranged daughters back from all parts of the country, towing husbands, children, and fiancés with them, back into the fold. Over several days and weeks, we witness the disintegration of a family whose secrets are as shaky as walking in deep sand. Each new revelation leads to further betrayal, further disillusionment, and further life instability.
All through the first act I was not getting into the play or the acting. I kept thinking, “What am I missing here?” I was feeling distant from the production, the characters, and the plot. I thought it couldn’t be my distance from the stage or the way the actors were blocked, though some of it was turned upstage. The second and third acts picked up tremendously and I became thoroughly engrossed but that first act kept haunting me. It wasn’t until I mulled the play over and over that I realized I was actually supposed to feel that way. Each and every character in August: Osage County is distant and separated, not only by miles, but mentally and emotionally. In Tracy Letts’ genius writing, I was unknowingly sucked into the void of their world.
Rodney Dobbs’ set was an open-sided 2 ½ story dollhouse on the prairie. And like a dollhouse, there were plenty of cubby-holed rooms in which to hide. Not viable due to sightlines, a wall and doorway became abstract but easily visualized. From the first floor living room, dining room, study and kitchen, to the second level sitting room, to the attic bedroom, Dobbs gave the director and actors plenty of choices and places to play. The furniture throughout was non-matching shades of mahogany and brown; simple, comfortable, un-defining. A few old-fashioned paintings might have been gifted from older relatives, a small reminder of Beverly and Violet’s pasts. Different patterns of wallpaper only defined the space, not the people in it. A muted-color quilt here, a faded armchair there. It was if the people inhabiting had settled for mediocrity long ago. Knowing Dobbs is a fantastic scenic painter, his choice for the barely visible cyc was a question. The bottom half was painted a deep shade of brown like layers of soil. On the horizon was a dark silhouette of a lone tree and single grain silo. My guess is it represented further distance and separation from those around them on that flat Oklahoma land.
Jason S. Foster illuminated the interior of the house with lighting practicals on every floor. Even though I know grid lighting was lowered to spotlight areas during specific moments, it was the dimming of the house’s lamps, scones and “ceiling lights” that made the effect believable. Actors took brief focus by simply turning out the bedside lamp. I loved the partial lowering of the interior lights - never ending a scene into darkness, but transitioning to dim so actors could enter and exit in character, keeping the flow going and the tension always present.
Eric Clapton and other late 70’s music choices were cleverly picked –“I Shot the Sheriff”, “Cocaine”, “Layla” – all represented one of the characters or their actions. Steve Emerson definitely chose them tongue in cheek, adding a bit of levity to the dark. Marcellus Hankins’ original compositions blended well with the songs, making a complete statement.
All the characters’ clothing was everyday street fare. Costume Designer Barbara Cox made sure no one was original, individual or stood out. I don’t remember any color brighter than Johnna’s deep turquoise top. Her added touches of reptile skin boots, thin bolo tie and khaki sheriff uniform read Okie all the way. Hiking shorts and sandals and polo top denoted yuppie Colorado. Georgana Jinks’ props were also nondescript, as they should be in that house. Beverly’s messy, book and paper-strewn study with one deep red book, the faded throw on the sofa, the beige and brown food on off-white plates; again, everything was low color-keyed to not draw attention.
Rene Moreno’s direction of August: Osage County was controlled, exact and deadly piercing. He allowed Letts' characters and their words to be the most important. Assembling a powerhouse cast, Moreno highlighted each actor’s role. Every single person on the stage was doing something all the time. Alone on a landing, in an attic room, playing cards or on the sofa watching TV, each silently illuminated their emotional walls, their pain, and their separation.
There are 13 characters in August: Osage County. None are minor parts of the play. Each was an integral part to what Violet announced as, a whole lot of “truth tellin’." Even acting mostly in silence, Sasha Truman-McGonnell delivered loud and clear as Johnna Monevata, the newly hired housekeeper/caretaker for Violet. Her facial expression, her stance, even her walk through the house relayed Johnna’s isolation as the outsider. Stan Graner stoically portrayed the quiet Sheriff Deon Gilbeau. Though in only a few scenes, Graner touched hearts as a man simply doing his job, but quietly longing for a missing part of his past.
From here on you might need a family chart so I’ll attempt to keep it clear. Beverly and Violet have three daughters, Barbara, Ivy and Karen. Barbara has a husband, Bill, and a daughter, Jean. Ivy is unmarried and Karen is engaged to Steve Heidebrecht. Violet has a sister, Mattie Fae, who is married to Charlie Aiken and they have a son, Little Charles.
Clay Yocum was Little Charles, in his thirties, berated by his mother and coddled by his dad. Yocum, a man with heft, humorously played his character’s nickname to a tee, living up to his mother’s accusations that he is worthless with groans, whines and TV-watching sulks. The other “child” in the family, Jean, was anything but. As played by Ruby Westfall, she was adult in action and beliefs but, at 14, lacking in life experience. Westfall portrayed the neglected child/temptress well, with a stage maturity beyond her years.
As Jean’s tempter, Karen’s fiancé, and one sorry son of a bitch, Chris Huey lent a perfectly creepy layer to his character. On one side, a good ol’ boy who worked in the stockyards, and on the other, a slimy, ne'er-do-well, Huey looked and acted every bit the part of a conman looking for his next sucker wife. Jessica Cavanagh played that wife, Karen, with a naïve air and desperate realization of her soon to be fate. That’s a see-saw type of role and Cavanagh deftly balanced it to such a degree, the audience had to decide between pity and ridicule.
The role of Ivy could be a throwaway part if not handled as vulnerably as Kristin McCollum played her. The sister who “stayed behind,” Ivy has been patient long enough and now is taking her last chance to divorce herself from the rest of a family who doesn’t think much of her at all. McCollum’s actions rose steadily in response to Ivy’s desperation. A background character at first, McCollum pushed Ivy to the forefront, powerfully building to her agonizing exit.
Bill, Barbara’s husband and Jean’s father has found himself in a strange triangle of marriage separation, too liberal child-rearing, and an affair with a young student. That’s enough to make the character played hen-pecked or milquetoast. While those were parts of Bill, James Crawford broke through an easy stereotype to portray him as a conscious but confused man who reached an impasse in his life. You could see the failure in his body and face, and another role that could have been underplayed became the anxiety of a man in middle life crisis in Crawford’s hands.
Nancy Sherrard as Mattie Fae reminded me so much of my aunt Ava – probably once a pretty woman but now only meddlesome because she had nothing left of substance for herself. Mattie Fae constantly worried, bickered, nagged, and belittled – all the things Sherrard can do so well on stage! But she made sure Mattie Fae was not a one note character, all fuss and no depth. There was always something guarded in her subtle glance or eye contact with another character. Sherrard played Mattie Fae as a powerful family matriarch with just the right vulnerability to release a long-held secret and be deeply hurt by those closest to her.
The complete opposite of Mattie was her husband Charlie, beautifully enacted by Tom Lenaghen in a role that, in other hands, might have been completely ignored. Charlie is a quiet, unassuming man, going with the flow. He has a truly loving heart and wishes no ill on anyone. He is an awkward speaker and an awkward husband and Lenaghen’s physical nature and laid-back voice lent easily to such a person. This is why it was so especially rewarding to witness Charlie’s rapid evolution when angered. Lenaghen was a natural comedian and easily got most of the laughs from the play. His character became the comedy to dispel all the family venom.
Cliff Stephens’ role was short, stage-wise, but was probably the most pivotal character in the play. As Violet’s husband, Beverly, he set the entire plot and continued to be an important character long after he left the stage. Talking to a silent Johnna, Beverly was akin to the Narrator in Our Town, accurately laying out the rest of the play, if you were listening carefully. Stephens’ stage presence and voice had an easy-going quality. He never once played ahead of the plot but let everything Beverly had to say fall naturally into place. In his whiskey stupor, Beverly was a gentle man and, quoting T.S. Eliot, said, “Life is long." Those three words perfectly summed up Beverly, and Stephens played him with dignity all the way.
The roles of Violet and daughter Barbara were as parallel as if they were identical twins. Both controlling and unrelenting, they hid deep hurts and secrets within their hearts so as not to show any cracks of weakness. These were tough women, forged from years of verbal and emotional abuse and resentment towards anyone who dared to show them love. Barbara also proved to be much like her father with no resolve when drinking, and showing a penchant to do just that. Two equally powerful actresses, Sherry Jo Ward as Barbara and Pam Dougherty as Violet, leveled the stage with their performances. Battling for authority the moment their eyes met again in Violet’s home, mother and daughter played cat and mouse all over the stage, retreating and regrouping then, BOOM, viciously pouncing from behind. Ward played Barbara as snobby, superior and demanding of everyone’s attention, but then startlingly showed those weak cracks so that her comebacks were all the more searing. Such diverse spectrums in a character can become muddied onstage but Ward made Barbara’s each and every intention crystal clear. It was these distinctions that strongly defined the role and made Ward’s portrayal so memorable.
Exhausting is the only word I can come up with to impart Pam Dougherty’s performance as the still reigning matriarch of the family, Violet. It would take as many pills as Violet popped during the entire play for me to make it through such a role. The continual extreme ups and downs of this character could be a complete nightmare for any actress who did not make the same intelligent choices Dougherty made. To make Violet an over-the-top shrew the entire play, as I have heard some actresses have done, not only leaves her one-dimensional, but is a painful blow to audiences’ senses, tuning her out and lending the character pointless. But Violet does certainly have a point and she lets it be known whenever it’s convenient to her in her game playing. I found it morbidly humorous Letts wrote Violet’s illness to be mouth cancer as that so utterly defined her. Spreading toxicity throughout the family as the cancer spread in her was such an amazing parallel. Dougherty knew exactly when to control those toxins and when to let them fly. Having first acted as Violet at Oklahoma CityRep gave her more time to perfect the role, but its Dougherty’s acting ability that made her portrayal of a woman as fragile as her name one of the best performances of the season.
In its short lifespan, I consider August: Osage County already a theatre classic and required reading for college-level theatre students. Letts has honored the world with no nonsense bulls-eye writing, razor-sharp humor, and too-close-for-comfort characters, some of whom remind me a bit too much of my family – ouch. Director Rene Moreno, the magnificent ensemble, and WaterTower Theatre has also honored us with a riveting production the area is not likely to behold for some time to come. To not be a part, by not being in the audience, is to deny yourself an experience and, more important, an opportunity to understand the difficulty of being human.
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