Reviewed by Judy Richter
After winning the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for drama and five Tony Awards, including Best Play, Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County," is on a national tour that has landed in San Francisco. Audiences here are familiar with his work mainly through "Killer Joe" in a Marin Theatre Company production that proved so popular, it transferred to San Francisco as a commercial production at the Magic Theatre.
The characters of "August: Osage County" are several social and intellectual steps above the trailer trash of "Killer Joe." They use words rather than physical violence as their weapons, but the emotional toll is no less damaging.
One of the factors that make "August" so intriguing is that all 13 characters are interesting. One can easily talk about each one's actions and motivations as they relate to the others. Spread over three acts and running more than three hours, "August" chronicles a dysfunctional family's disintegration step by painful step, yet leavens the tragic with comic moments.
The action takes place in the Weston family home (three-level set by Todd Rosenthal with lighting by Ann G. Wrightson, costumes by Ana Kuzmanic and sound by Richard Woodbury), outside Pawhuska, Okla., about 60 miles northwest of Tulsa. It opens with the family patriarch Beverly Weston (John DeVries), delivering a long, alcohol-fueled monologue to Johnna Montevata (DeLanna Studi), a young Cheyenne Indian woman whom he is hiring as a housekeeper and possible caretaker to his wife, Violet (Estelle Parsons), who, among other problems, has mouth cancer. Beverly, a retired college teacher and poet, talks about the compromises he and Violet have made -- he with his drinking, she with her addiction to prescription drugs. He also talks of T.S. Eliot and quotes from "The Wasteland."
A few days later, Beverly has disappeared, prompting a gathering of several family members: middle daughter Ivy (Angelica Torn), a mousy college teacher who lives nearby; Violet's sharp-tongued sister, Mattie Fae Aiken (Libby George), and her husband, Charlie (Paul Vincent O'Connor), who also live fairly close; and eldest daughter Barbara Fordham (Shannon Cochran), who teaches college in Boulder, Colo.; along with her husband, Bill (Jeff Still), also a college teacher; and their 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Emily Kinney). We soon learn that Barbara and Bill are separated because he's sleeping with one of his students. The arrival of the sheriff, Deon Gilbeau (Marcus Nelson), ends their speculation about what has happened to Beverly. He has committed suicide by drowning.
Act 2 takes place after Beverly's funeral, when everyone goes to the family homestead for dinner. By then, the group has been joined by the youngest Weston daughter, Karen (Amy Warren), a Realtor in Florida; her fiance, Steve Heidebrecht (Laurence Lau), an oily businessman; and Mattie Fae and Charlie's adult son, Little Charles (Stephen Riley Key). The gathering at dinner and later in the evening erupts into a series of angry confrontations and even physical fights as one character after another digs deep into long-festering emotional wounds and long-kept secrets.
By Act 3, almost everyone has gone home in a huff, perhaps never to return. Only Barbara remains, but as was evident in Act 2, she's becoming just as shrewish as her mother and just as heavy a drinker as her father. She apparently wants to help Violet, but Violet's cruel tongue eventually drives her away, too, leaving only the steady, apparently unflappable Johnna there to comfort the confused and now self-pitying Violet with the penultimate lines from "The Wasteland": "This is the way the world ends." It's up to the audience to fill in the last line, "Not with a bang, but a whimper."
Among the 13 characters, only five seem to be decent rather than vicious. Besides Johnna, they're the sheriff; the intellectually slow but innately sweet Little Charles; Ivy, who somehow survives and finally escapes with Little Charles; and the Charlie, who tries to be a peacemaker but who finally stands up to his wife, Mattie Fae, and insists that she not belittle Little Charles.
Now, as if addiction and emotional cruelty weren't enough, Letts adds other issues such as incest, adultery and pedophilia to the mix. Despite all the plot twists and turns, though, the story is easy to follow. A family tree in the program helps the audience sort everyone out before becoming well acquainted with them.
Anna D. Shapiro, who won a Tony for directing the original production, keeps the action flowing well and allows each character to develop logically. She's aided by a topflight ensemble of actors led by astounding octogenarian Parsons as Violet, who can be lucid at times and totally addled at others. Cochran is almost painful to watch as Barbara tries to cope with her disintegrating marriage, her pot-smoking daughter, her vicious mother and all her other relatives, paying the price with her own emotional descent. All of the others seem perfectly suited for their roles. Special note needs to be made of O'Connor, who was a favorite at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for 16 years and who has occasionally appeared at various Bay Area theaters.
The arrival of "August: Osage County," was much anticipated, and now that it's here, it fulfills expectations and then some. It's well worth another viewing to catch some of the more subtle connections and to see how early comments and actions presage what's to come.