BWW Reviews: AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY at Kent County Theatre Guild

When I first read Tracy Letts' August: Osage County I knew it was a powerful play (I guess that validates the Pulitzer and Tony awards it received), but I had serious reservations about its presentation in a local community theater. Community theater audiences are often conservative and generally prefer to be amused rather than to be challenged. August: Osage County also demands a complex set and a fairly large (for community theater) cast of strong actors with a good range of emotional expression, serious obstacles for many community theater groups.

(L-R): Becki Polk (Mattie Fae), Adara Ryan (Jean), Carol Torrey (Ivy), Chris Polo (Violet), and Kristen J. Boehmer (Barbara) in Kent County Theatre Guild's August: Osage County. Photo credit: Deanna Hess

Kent County Theatre Guild has proven that I was excessively pessimistic. While there is nothing that can be done to alter audience predisposition, the Guild has demonstrated that August: Osage County is well within its range of presentation. The set, designed by Chris Polo, is a 3-story masterpiece that makes full use of the Guild's stage space and provides ample performance space on its second-floor landing and upper-level attic room, tied together by open stairways. Claude Warnick's lighting enhances the set's effectiveness, allowing each of its parts to present a share of the action.

The cast delivers Letts' characters in all their glorious dysfunction - and the Westons of Pawhuska, OK have more than their share of troubles ... far more. In a Prologue, Beverly Weston, family patriarch (played by director Denis Stanton), provides the first clues. He hires Johnna (Deanna Hess) to deal with the everyday details of life for him and his wife because those details "get in the way of my drinking." Their principal activities, as Beverly reveals, are, "My wife takes pills and I drink." Shortly after, his wife Violet (Chris Polo) stumbles into the scene, completely incoherent.

Soon, drawn together by Beverly's disappearance, the rest of the family begins to gather. Violet's sister, Mattie Fae (Becki Polk) and her husband Charlie Aiken (David Bralley, in a role apparently shared with Jeff Mask) are in almost continuous disagreement, mostly about their son. Ivy, the middle Weston daughter, quiet and withdrawn, is soon an easy mark for her mother's sharp criticism of every aspect of her life.

The Fordhams - Barbara (the oldest Weston daughter) and her husband Bill (Don Lonski) - arrive from their home in Boulder, CO, arguing about the extent to which Bill seems to "encourage" their daughter's smoking. They stop arguing when that daughter Jean (Adara Ryan) catches up, having stopped for a smoke. Karen (Lezlie Eustis, the youngest daughter), brings her fiance, Steve (David Hall) all the way from Florida, hoping her family will recognize that she's finally gotten her life together. Later than all the rest (as his mother expected) is "Little Charles" Aiken (Will McVay), shambling and apologetic.

Sheriff Deon Gilbeau (Steven Pate), a former classmate of Barbara, provides some critical information and offers a potential new emotional involvement.

As the extended Weston clan assembles, they renew old relationships, sharing hilarious laughter as they recall family foibles. All too soon, they commence the family's favorite sport - pushing each other's buttons. They are very good at that and none is better than Violet. Despite her persistent chemically-induced haze, she seems to be aware of everybody's secrets and relishes using them to reopen and salt old wounds.

This is not Albee or O'Neill. This is not a classic tale of a family full of woe. Tracy Letts has used these themes to create theatrical , if somewhat histrionic, entertainment. Some will find the strong language used in this play offensive and will be put off by it. Almost every character makes use of some normally deleted expletives, Barbara and Violet more, perhaps, than all of the others combined. The language is completely appropriate to the characters and their states of mind. It is jarring; I believe it is intended to be so. Letts' characters take us on a ride - a ride that rises to heights of laughter and plunges, repeatedly, into a dark labyrinth of pain.

Director Denis Stanton as done an outstanding job - recruiting strong actors and drawing excellent performances from each of them. The entire cast is to be complimented for their portrayal of real, complete, complex, damaged people. Two actors need to be singled out, because they provide the moving epicenters of the action. Chris Polo delivers what can only be termed a bravura performance as Violet. She explores every nuance of her character - foggy to crystal clear, pitiable to despicable - with such intensity that she must be completely exhausted by the end of each performance. Kristen J. Boehmer's Barbara matches Violet step for step, passionate twist for volatile turn, as she deals with her own personal demons.

When you see August: Osage County at the Kent County Theatre Guild - and I think you should - be prepared for its intense and raw emotion. It uses strong language to present strong emotion. Be prepared, as well, to be entertained. It is a play that will have you laughing at times. At others, you may be thrown back in your seat by its intensity and on the edge of your seat as you anticipate events and responses.

August: Osage County continues at the Kent County Theatre Guild's Playhouse on E. Roosevelt Avenue Fridays 8 PM through September 28, with one 2 PM matinee on Sunday, September 22. Call (302) 674-3568 or visit Running time: 3 hours, 20 minutes.

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