August: Osage County. “It can be argued that this is the most significant theatrical work to come out of Oklahoma since a little musical you might have heard of, “mused Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre’s artistic director Don Jordan in an October 6 interview with ‘Oklahoma Gazette’ writer Eric Webb. Playwright Tracy Letts may have written, work-shopped and launched initial performance of his 2008 Pulitzer and Tony-winning play at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company (where he is a resident member), but he’s still an Oklahoma boy by nature. His play, set in northern Oklahoma, portrays a complicated, darkly dysfunctional family encounter that takes place in the rambling home of aging Beverly and Violet Weston after Beverly disappears and drowns, a suicide. It seems so fitting that Oklahoma’s flagship professional theatre company “City Rep” should be one of the first US theatres granted the performance rights to the play after the national tour’s conclusion, bringing it “home”. Add to the promising production mix award-winning regional director Rene Moreno along with Dallas-based regional award-winning actress Pam Dougherty as family matriarch Violet. I reserved my reviewer seat as fast as I could fire up my computer.
I took my second row seat and chatted with neighboring audience members at the Saturday October 9 evening performance in thrilled anticipation. I realized shortly the house was full of proud Oklahomans, eager to witness a unique world on stage, filled with familiar people whose heritage, accents, and experiences would “feel right”, yet whose lives would transcend the regional to resonate eloquently at a universal level. None of us left disappointed.
Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre’s production of August: Osage County bypassed any sort of genteel, superficial treatment in concept and execution, by a country mile. Visceral, relentless, uncompromising, it whipped its audience like the desolate wind that whistled the production to its final moment.
The City Rep production got down and dirty, burrowed deep to the gritty heart and soul of long-hidden Weston family secrets, their rages and sorrows, unresolved conflicts. It sent its audience into gales of laughter with Letts’ caustic humor, delivered with impeccable timing, then followed close with startling revelation unleashed like an enraged rattlesnake in attack mode, fangs sinking to the bone. Slammed back breathless in my seat repeatedly, I recognized fully why Letts’ play won the Tony and the Pulitzer and is considered by many to be a landmark play for the 21st century.
Skillful direction, well-defined production concept and high caliber of appropriate ensemble acting tuned this production like a tight-strung fiddle. Director Rene Moreno grew up with sisters. He knows what it can be like when the women of a family gather and old issues, relationship challenges arise; he met them as developed in August: Osage County head-on. Moreno’s powerful directorial gift allows actors to fully explore character emotions and motives in fine detail while keeping a play’s beats and over-reaching thematic arc sparkling and alive with symphonic precision. What resulted here was a highly ‘natural’ performance that balanced the vivid reality of each character with the play’s dynamic artistry. Directing Letts’ emotion and imagery-laden play must be just as challenging as directing Shakespeare, where Moreno also excels.
The diverse cast of established regional and national professionals responded beautifully under Moreno’s guidance. Myth plays an enormous part in August: Osage County – myth of family, myth of marriage, myth of the Greatest Generation, myth of personal strength in adversity. As matriarch Violet, Pam Dougherty embodied an elderly hausfrau agonized with mouth cancer and functionally compromised by prescription drug abuse, a woman whose life has just been upended by her husband’s death.
Her confusion fuels her rage. Dougherty revealed a strong, fascinating Violet, capable of enormous cruelty, yet frightened and desperately clinging to the myth of family connection. The adult daughters drawn home by their father’s disappearance and death, with spouses, children and sweethearts in tow, gather ostensibly to support mom. But they bring their own life dramas with them and cling as desperately to the myth of family as Violet does. Each daughter reflects different aspects of Violet and finds herself facing unwelcome truths about her own extra-family relationships. Enmeshed in a long-standing family system, their sibling alienation seems to draw them towards confrontation, moths to flame, no matter how they fight it. City Rep founding member Ruth Charnay as shy, embittered Ivy with a secret love, regional actress and author Kris Schinske as dizzy, self-deceiving Karen and Oklahoma native Stacey Logan with extensive national credentials, as eldest Barbara, made the “Weston girls” a palpable reality. Daddy’s favorite as well as Mother’s, feared and resented by all, Barbara functions as the play’s catalyst and carries the family’s moral compass until the final scene. Eyes flashing with grim set jaw, Logan gave a fearless performance, showing a Barbara as desperate to claw out of her own life’s misfortunes as she is to dominate her over-bearing mother. Logan and Dougherty were exceptionally well paired in mother-daughter antipathy and kept the audience at seat’s edge throughout; whose version of truth would hold sway?
When their psychological battle erupted into physical violence, it was hard to believe they were acting and not flying out of control (Matthew Ellis – fight choreography). The male actors floating around these female Oklahoman cyclones were equal to their tasks. City Rep artistic associate Michael Jones created a vibrant portrayal of the patriarch Beverly in the play’s opening scene, foreshadowing the play’s eventualities delicately and simply, without telegraphing them soap opera style. Oklahoma City University professor D. Lance Marsh provided a believable grounded contrast to Logan’s Barbara as her philandering husband Bill. Regional actor, playwright and corporate trainer Rick Allen Lippert was the perfect henpecked husband for Violet’s brassy sister Mattie, played with delightful gaucherie by Cindy Hanska. Equally impressive in their strong performances were regional director and commercial actor Craig Pruitt as incompetent, codependent Little Charles and nationally respected theatre professional Jonathan Beck Reed as sleazy pedophile Steve, delusional youngest sister Karen’s fiancée. Sarah dAngelo brought an impassive strength and calm to her role as Native American housekeeper Johna, and Oklahoma City University senior Brooke Culbertson made a convincing portrait as Barbara’s wayward teen-aged daughter Jean, clearly following in the family traditions of self-deception and substance abuse.
Every nook and corner of scenic designer Ben Hall’s multi-level reveal set of the Weston’s book and knick-knack filled home interior reinforced the play’s themes and relationships.
Tristan Decker’s lighting defined and illuminated the often-linear episodes with cinematic clarity. Tying the play’s explosive emotional chaos together and enabling three acts’ worth of crisp continuity, sound designer Steve Emerson’s use of Eric Clapton tunes added just the right contemporary edginess to balance the play’s cerebral verbosity. Absolutely satisfying, in all aspects.
I attended the opening night performance of the national tour of August: Osage County when it came through Dallas in January 2010. It felt like the Cliff Notes version compared to Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre’s regional production that concluded October 10.The first production of City Rep’s ninth year, its high quality attests to why City Rep’s subscription base has more than tripled since last season. Missed it? Check out their upcoming season on the web. It’s not that far to Oklahoma City, and the fresh fried pies sold just across the Texas border make the trip value-added.
Pam Dougherty shares her insights into playing Violet on This Week in the Arts: http://thisweekinthearts.flowercast.net/2010/10/15/pam-dougherty-august-osage-county
August: Osage County by Tracy Letts ran for five sold out performances October 7-10, 2010, at the Freede Little Theatre in the Oklahoma City Civic Center Music Hall.
Info and tickets: http://www.cityrep.com 405.848.3761