Thursday, September 10, 2009

review - August: Osage County

August: Osage County
by Tracy Letts
directed by Anna D. Shapiro
Ahmanson Theatre
through October 18
To compare Tracy Letts' August: Osage County to Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night seems logical. Like Journey, it's a blisteringly real look at how a mother's drug addiction helps to destroy her family. It's also very long - 3 and a half+ hours - but never boring; in fact, the characters and plot developments rivet our attention at every turn.
In August, there are more characters to deal with than in Journey. Journey has 2 sons, both afflicted with illness and unmarried. In August the siblings are girls and one of them is married with children. And the matriarch's sister and her husband and son also play urgently into the plot, as they are an intimate part of the core family - more intimate, in fact, than sister Mattie (Libby George) really cares to admit. One can honestly say that August is far more abrasive, violent and sexually perverted than Journey.
The Westons are a dysfunctional family from Oklahoma who all come together when the patriarch suddenly disappears. At the same time, they are forced to deal with their mother's so-called 'insanity' and with their own annoying issues - like infidelity, child abuse, alcoholism, to name a few, that surface little by little and complicate familial cohesiveness.
Estelle Parsons heads the cast in the role of her career as Violet Weston and lets out all the stops. It is hard to believe that Miss Parsons is now in her 80s, as she bounds down the stairs with the agility of a lightheaded schoolgirl. Both her physicality and emotional memory get an enormous workout as Vi. Parsons delivers an astounding portrayal.
Vi is most at odds with eldest daughter Barbara (Shannon Cochran) who seizes control from her mother after a rowdy and abusive dinner scene. Barbara's marriage is nearly at an end and her 2 sisters' plans for marital happiness are thwarted as well (Angelica Torn as Ivy and Amy Warren as Karen offer winning performances). Cochran confronts her complex role of Barbara with great skill and courage. Her work is awesome as is that of Libby George as Mattie. DeLanna Studi has perhaps one of the most difficult roles as Johnna Monevata, the Native American who is hired to cook and care for Vi. In a household where everyone is verbally mistreated, her plight seems even more intense; great strength shines through her moments of silence. Jon DeVries in his brief appearance as Beverly leaves a lasting impression of loneliness and melancholy. Others in the excellent ensemble under Shapiro's breathtaking direction include Jeff Still, Laurence Lau, Emily Kinney and Stephen Riley Key.
Letts has created such intensely volatile characters that it is difficult not to appreciate the extraordianry humor that is unleashed at the most unexpected moments. The dinner scene and the physical violence that erupts in its aftermath provide a perfect example. It is horrorific to watch and at the same time, exceedingly funny. Another example of Letts' dark humor: why be nice to a family member? "You never know when someone may need a kidney".
If the Weston family hide unsavory secrets, we are left to wonder what else we do not know about them. They've tested practically every vice. How sad, as this is the norm for many contemporary dysfunctional families.
5 out of 5 stars


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