Forget all that you may have heard about August: Osage County. It is not a dark comedy where an Estelle Parson-ish virago grandmother skewers her pampered children with her acid tongue. It is instead a voyage into the land of the living dead, whose human weaknesses have led them into inhuman acts. It is fascinating and horrifying in equal measure; Virginia Woolf without the literary bon mots; a portrait of a family falling apart whose surrender to chaos is so rapid that they can only watch as it happens.
It is the tale of Violet Weston (Rena Cherry Brown), a drug-addled woman in her dessert years whose husband, the boozehound and long-ago poet Beverly (Stan Shulman), has gone missing. It is even more the story of Barbara Fordham (Susan Marie Rhea), her take-charge daughter, whose no-nonsense manner masks a thermonuclear fury which at all times threatens to ignite the entire room. And it is our story, too, in that the common devils of our everyday lives – betrayal, recreational drugs, failure, hopelessness, adultery, self-loathing – have woven a blanket for the Weston family so suffocating that the most hopeful promise it holds is the possibility of an incestuous relationship between two consenting adults.
Beverly begins the story with a whisky-soaked monologue about T.S. Elliot during a “job interview” with Johnna Monevata (Sadia Hafiz), a Cheyenne woman hard up for work. He needs someone to look after Violet, who under the cover of treating her mouth cancer takes a bewildering array of psychotropic drugs. He notes, correctly, that “I myself require very little personal attention.” His invocation of Elliot, and particularly his praise for how easily the poet institutionalized his mentally ill first wife and got on with his life, is meant as an oblique clue to Johnna, but it also warns us that the rest of the evening will be bathed in Elliot’s sense of melancholy, disintegration and loss.
Once Stan disappears, the damaged clan gathers: Violet’s black-hearted sister Mattie Fae Aiken (Kerry Waters Lucas), her resigned husband Charlie (Kevin Adams) and their sad-sack son, Little Charles (Michael Innocenti), who at 37 manages to be both unemployed and unable to drive a car.
Violet’s daughters also show up: Ivy (Belen Pifel), who stayed in the barren Oklahoma town she grew up in and is now a bitter spinster, Karen (Karen Novack), who has lived a life of perpetual self-abasement but after years of self-help remedies has found Steve (Charlie Abel), who will help her achieve more self-abasement; and Barbara. Barbara arrives with her seemingly supportive husband Bill (Colin Smith) and her pot-smoking 14-year-old daughter Jean (Lyndsay Rini), but we soon see that she is as miserable as everyone else in this miserable household.
The core of this Tony-winning, Pulitzer-winning play is murder by truth, and truth-telling is the source of both the searing drama and the scalding comedy. The centerpiece is the second-act dinner in which Violet, high on Percocet and its pharmaceutical cousins, outs Barbara’s disintegrating marriage and the fact that Bill is sleeping with one of his students, ridicules her other guests, tearfully recounts the abuse she received as a child, and graphically recites the mantra of many couples in longstanding relationships: she hates her husband, he disgusts her, he is the greatest man in the world.
But Violet isn’t the only truth-teller, and the laugh lines don’t entirely belong to her. “We fucked the Indians for this?” Barbara asks wonderingly, viewing the desiccated landscape that surrounds her parent’s home. Later she challenges the notion that Violet and Bev were part of the greatest generation. “’Greatest generation’ my ass.” she snarls. “Are they really considering all the generations? Maybe there are some generations from the Iron Age that could compete.”
In fact, the comedy is so good in Letts’ script that it threatens to eat up the entire show. The Post’s Peter Marks filed a telling minority report on the Broadway production back in December of 2007:
“The sandpaper-voiced [Deanna] Dunagan plays the bravura role of Violet as a foul, destructive sociopath….it has to be considered a miracle that any of her progeny survived childhood. Dunagan fails to make her compelling. And given how easy it is to dismiss Violet as ridiculously evil, the drama’s conclusion proves to be an unpersuasive attempt to recast her as worthy of empathy.”
You couldn’t say that about the Keegan production. It is easy to play August: Osage County for laughs, but Keegan plays it for keeps. Brown, and Keegan, brilliantly underscore Violet’s vulnerability from the very first moment she staggers on stage, swaying as she makes her way down the stairs from her bedroom nest to the study where Beverly interviews Johnna. “Are you an Indian?” she asks Johnna, blinking and nodding, inhibitions and common sense long gone. And in an instant, you see that this is a woman who, however foully she may act, cannot be held fully accountable. She may be a viper, but her fangs were long ago replaced by dentures. When Barbara later reveals that Violet’s doctor thinks she may be suffering from brain damage, the diagnosis is utterly plausible.
Yes, Violet is a mean-spirited old lady who says nasty things to the people she should love. But there’s a lot of that going on, and Violet is no worse than her little sister Mattie Fae, a gorgon who feasts on the inadequacies of her own son. Lucas is superb at this, a real Medusa who may be using her son as revenge not against her husband but against herself. And Innocenti’s Little Charlie leads with his chin, making the war of the Aikens as gruesomely fascinating as the war of the Westons.
But back to Violet. “Such is the mesmerizing power of [Dunagen’s] performance that as Violet’s snake eyes scan the horizon for a fresh victim, claw-hand dragging a Winston to her grimly set mouth, you may actually find yourself sinking in your seat, irrationally praying that she doesn’t pick on you,” Charles Isherwood said, in another review of the Broadway production. But that won’t be the way you react to the Keegan production. Thanks to the careful work done in the first Act, your reaction will be to soothe Violet, to agree with her as a way of placating her, and pour her another glass of wine. The fact that her daughters don’t act this way throws the burden of explanation, and of the story, on them.
They are the equal to it. In particular, Rhea as Barbara gives one of the angriest performances I have ever seen on stage, lashing out at her mother for her drug addiction, at her husband for his infidelity, and at her daughter for her inability to express her love for her. Indeed, you can see in Rhea’s Barbara the seeds of Violet Weston: implacably angry and increasingly prone to drink, she could in thirty years be her mother, a stoned incoherent woman sputtering in impotent anger.
This is the second consecutive production (following Spring Awakening) in which Keegan, and director Mark A. Rhea, deliberately walk away from convention and easy laughs to present a story as it most probably would have really happened. Rhea’s decision to emphasize Violet’s vulnerability (and Brown’s flawless execution of that decision) adds grace and power to Letts’ story, and allows the other characters to flower as full human beings, rather than merely as patsies for Violet’s distemper.
Even the outsiders – Hafiz’ stoical Johnna, who (you sense) has had sufficiently broad experience in the bizarre and the distasteful to deal with the Westons, and Eric Lucas’ sweet-natured sheriff – come more fully to life when dealing with a household full of dysfunction, rather than one nasty lady and her victims.
August: Osage County
By Tracy Letts
Produced by Keegan Theatre
Directed by Mark A. Rhea
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Onstage thru Sept 2, 2012
Church Street Theater
1742 Church St NW
Time: 3 hours 40 minutes, with 2 intermissions
There are some flaws, but they have to do with Letts’ script, not Keegan’s production. The playwright labors mightily to draw parallels between the disintegration of the Westons and the disintegration of civilization generally. It doesn’t work, because, as Tolstoy observed, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. The play ends with Johnna cradling Violet in her arms and chanting part of an iconic line from “The Hollow Men” (Beverly has given her his book of Elliot poems). “This is the way the world ends”, she says, over and over again, but of course the world doesn’t end and the members of the Weston clan will resolutely continue their miserable lives.
Letts also gives the piece a final twist which moves the story perilously close to melodrama but which, all things considered, should have no effect on anyone’s decision-making. I cannot tell you what it is, but you will recognize it when you see it (as you should). Letts seems to have learned from this mistake; his subsequent piece, Superior Donuts, ends exactly where it must.
Without getting too specific, I should note that, like all Letts plays, there are some terrific fights in this, and justice requires that we credit fight choreographer Kyle Encinas.
This play is in three acts, and is three hours and forty minutes long. When it ended, I wanted some more. Brothers and sisters, that’s good theater.
Jolene Cardoza Munch . Washington Examiner
Rebecca J. Ritzel . City Paper
Jeffrey Walker . BroadwayWorld
Magic Time! . John Stoltenberg
Celia Wren . Washington Post
Robert Michael Oliver . MDTheatreGuide
Gwendolyn Purdom . Washingtonian
Doug Rule . MetroWeekly
David Friscic . DCMetroTheaterArts
Susan Galbraith says
What a terrific piece of writing, Tim. I saw the Broadway show and I found it very strong — but like acid strong. This production sounds so human and compelling. Keegan does their best work in serious language-drenched dramas. Sounds like their work — like your writing — positively sings! Thanks