August: Osage County at Actors' Playhouse is a riveting study in family dysfunction
At a little more than three hours, Tracy Letts's Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play, August: Osage County, has a grand, operatic feel. And it's the epic scope and elaborately detailed set piece that make this such a satisfyingly complex dramedy in which dense family psychodrama takes center stage.
The emotionally charged and darkly funny play — about a dysfunctional family forced to come together to deal with some thorny baggage — packs a palpable punch, propelled by an outstanding cast and a mercurial performance by Annette Miller, who plays the family matriarch, Violet.
Separated into three acts, August has the rare ability to leave the audience wanting more just as each intermission begins. Letts's characters shine through extended monologues, while the family's incendiary drama gets increasingly convoluted as the play progresses. It's exhausting at times, but the compulsive story lines and sardonic humor prove riveting.
As the lights go up for the prologue, we see Weston family patriarch Beverly (Dennis Creaghan) in his book-strewn study. He's downing a bottle of Scotch and speaking with Johnna (Cecilia Isis Torres), a Native American woman he intends to hire as a housekeeper. "My wife takes pills, and I drink," he rambles through a half-drunken slur. "That's the bargain we've struck."
The scene is ferocious playwriting at its best, and Beverly's inebriated soliloquy sets the tone for what is to be a volatile, funny, and gripping narrative.
The rest of the Westons, including sisters Ivy (Kathryn Lee Johnson), Barbara (Laura Turnbull), and Karen (Amy McKenna), are forced to come together at their pastoral Oklahoma homestead after booze-hound Beverly walks out of the house one day and simply vanishes. At the center of it all is Violet, the 65-year-old matriarch who pops pills and, in a drug-addled state, confronts her relatives with their dark and astonishing secrets.
The often capricious relationship between Violet and her three daughters swirls like a tempest around the family homestead. There's middle daughter Ivy, who seems to be Violet's favorite because she's the only child who hasn't moved away, but who is constantly called "plain" and criticized by Mom for never finding a good man. Barbara, the eldest sister, has a quick tongue and a failing marriage to Bill (David Kwiat), a man her parents believe has always been beneath her. And then there's Karen, the smug and newly engaged youngest daughter whose "perfect" fiancé, Steve (Stephen G. Anthony), turns out to be something of a scoundrel.
The brewing family storm comes to a head in the play's second act during a formal dinner where Barbara violently confronts Violet's drug habit. The argument turns into a full-blown skirmish, and the two women need to be separated. It's a play-defining scene that clearly exposes Violet's need to forget the past and deal with the pains of the present through the use of narcotics.
Hovering above all the madness is Johnna, the Cheyenne Indian whose steely resolve and mystic strength calm the roaring waters threatening to drown the Weston clan. Always minding her place, but never far away from the tumultuous moments, she brings resoluteness when the family members need it most, even if most of them see her as an intruder. It isn't until a particularly ugly incident with Steve and Barbara's 14-year-old daughter, Jackie (Jean Rivera), when Johnna physically intervenes.
Johnna perfectly bookends the story as we come to understand what Beverly saw in her and why he chose to hire her to care for his ailing wife. She is Beverly and Violet's last remaining refuge, a role that is fully realized at the play's sullen climax, when Johnna quotes T. S. Eliot: "This is the way the world ends."
David Arisco's direction is nearly flawless in this Actors' Playhouse production at the Miracle Theatre. The challenge of such a grand, bold play is that the staging can be fraught with problems and hiccups. But the entire production went off without a hitch, thanks to the help of an amazing set piece by Sean McClelland, terrific lighting by Patrick Tennent, and a superb cast led by Miller and Turnbull.
One of the highlights is the massive and beautifully intricate set designed by McClelland. The tale takes place in the Westons' rustic three-story home, and that's exactly what the audience gets. The detailed structure is essentially a metaphor for the family's weary plight, but the home also becomes a character itself, thanks to McClelland and his crew's masterful work. The play is worth seeing for the set alone.
August: Osage County is the kind of work that breathes new life into the local theater scene. Actors' Playhouse has pulled something of a coup by bringing this production to South Florida, and we suspect the Carbonell Awards committee will be kind to the company this time next year. August is must-see theater.
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