I find myself an increasingly stronger proponent of multi-ethnic (a.k.a. non-traditional or “rainbow”) casting, the more I see the positive and astonishing ripple effect it has on real life society (I’m convinced it had more than a little to do with making an Obama White House possible). But August: Osage County has taken an envelope-stretching step in presenting Phylicia Rashad as its troubled family’s pill-addicted, domineering matriarch Violet Weston (following Deana Duaigan and Estelle Parsons).
The socio-political statement tacitly being made is perfectly fine; but the potential strain on simple, dramatic verisimilitude proves a real test. Save for a young Native American housekeeper (Johnna Monevata), ethnicity is never mentioned, but it never has to be it’s implicit. For Tracy Letts’ often very funny, yet deeply sad family drama, which has resonances of plays like Long Days’ Journey into Night, takes place in deep South Oklahoma; every other character in the play is blood-related; and Ms. Rashad is the only African American on that stage. Unless you consciously decide to rationalize that her character husband’s gene pool is seriously dominant, you must sit back and make a silent pact with the production, okay, magic of the theatre. Such a pact is far easier to make when the event is something classical, musical or otherwise poetically elevated, which can often render literalism moot. But can non-traditional casting survive the context of lyric realism?
In truth, it takes a few minutes to determine. You can actually feel the trial period before both the patrons and Ms. Rashad settle into the agreement. But exhilaratingly, in this case, at least, the answer is yes.
Ms. Rashad, who is lately specializing in diverse matriarchs, (as seen in Gem of the Ocean, A Raisin in the Sun, and the all-black Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) doesn’t precisely make you “forget” or “ignore” the ethnic contrast so much as she (with the rest of the cast) renders it irrelevant. Her Violet is formidably manipulative and predatory—the performance unsentimental, unapologetic and, as typical with this actress, fearlessly powerful.
Also new to the cast are that constant reliable John Cullum (winningly playing Violet’s husband with a wry, laconic delivery), that legendary Southern powerhouse Elizabeth Ashley as Violet’s sister, plus Guy Boyd (her husband), Michael Milligan (their grown son), Frank Wood (husband to Violet’s eldest) and Anne Berkowitz (his daughter). In league with the remaining original cast members and director Anna D. Shapiro, they’ve accomplished one of the more seamless replacement transitions I’ve ever seen, and it all still has the freshness and high octane dynamic of an opening week ensemble.
“non traditional” soon become a misnomer…
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