BWW Review: Feasting on Family in AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, at Axial Theatre
Consider these tasty ingredients for a delectable, prize-winning stage play, part tragedy, part comedy, all uproarious: One mother, medicated. One father, missing. Three sisters, distraught. Sprinkle in a motley mix of in-laws and outcasts. For added measure, it's August, and the lady of the century-old house, wherein they all noisily bump into - and bellow at - each other, has no use for air-conditioning (or for heiresses).
Meet the Westons of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, 60 miles northwest of Tulsa, county of Osage. They're on spectacular display through May 19, in a rousing production of Tracy Letts's multi-award-winning stage play August: Osage County, at Axial Theatre in Pleasantville.
Stir 'em up and watch the blood boil over. Blaming and shaming, mocking and shocking one other. A lifespan of open wounds festering; feasting on each other's weaknesses. Arguing about the rules of arguing. Sure, every now and again, there's a stray compliment that manages to slip out, but it's usually a mere superficiality, skimming the thin ice that covers deep-seated resentments.
It's a fun-house mirror of Americana arcana, reminding us that the reason blood is thicker than water is because it's larded with toxic sentiment, born of relationships that were thrust upon us by birth or invited in by marriage. More than one of those relationships here gets pretty funky before the curtain falls, by which point the household has fallen apart.
CUCKOO'S NEST OF VIPERS AND VICTIMS
Not all families can claim the abundance of volatile drama that distinguishes the Westons. Thank goodness a writer as skilled as Tracy Letts gave birth to this cuckoo's nest of vipers and victims. It makes for one heck of a roller-coaster ride. Not surprisingly, he has been amply rewarded for his efforts with every coveted theater prize handed to him for this exquisitely crafted Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play.
His sharp-toothed dialogue is swift and savage, most notably as voiced by mouthy matriarch Violet Weston, brought to vivid life on the Axial stage, with a riveting performance by the charismatic Mickey Pantano (of Manhattan). She pulls off the neat theatrical trick of making Violet's behavior so vile it's sublime.
As the play hurtles forward, the decidedly non-shrinking Violet meets her white-hot match in eldest daughter Barbara, portrayed potently by Elizabeth D'Ottavio (Old Greenwich). She effectively manages the tension within herself that pits resolve against exasperation, a dueling duality recognizable to many an adult child-turned-caregiver. Vi and Barbara become the fast-pumping heart of the piece, though their fraught and fragile relationship feels more like congestive heart failure.
Where in all this fits Violet's husband, Mr. Weston? That would be Beverly, a lapsed poet of some renown. He lives in the bottle, as Mrs. Weston, coping with mouth cancer, lives in the pillbox.
BEVERLY'S DISAPPEARING ACT
The first time we see Beverly is the last time we see him-in the opening scene. Following an elegiac monologue, spiked with martini-dry humor and masterfully delivered with economy and authenticity by D. Scott Faubel (White Plains), Beverly disappears with dispatch. The rest of the play posits the Westons' extended family in search of Beverly, but that's the script's MacGuffin, a favorite term of famed filmmaker Alfred Hitchock's. It connotes a plot device that has little to do with the plot's subtext.
Tracy Letts's real preoccupation is, in part, with the failings of human connection and communication. His fictional people, like a great many of us real-life folks, talk and talk, but don't hear each other very well. They talk at or past one another. They are busy licking their wounds, waiting anxiously for the next chance to defend and retaliate, like domestic war games.
A perhaps more obvious theme here is the ties that bind parents to children and vice versa. Mr. Letts pokes around the idea of how parents and children stay tenuously connected while not wanting to be imprisoned by past interdependence.
For both generations, it's a losing battle, in more ways than one. In another time, it was common for children to stick around wherever it was they grew up, staying near to parents. As advances in transportation made America easier to traverse, the offspring more frequently flew further from the nest, creating both physical and emotional distance from parents.
THE UMBILICAL CONNECTION
Mr. Letts employs a starkly literal way to underscore that evolution of filial estrangement: He has the Westons' housekeeper, a native American young woman named Johnna Monevata (elegantly played by Alexandra Theodoropoulos, Cold Spring), explain that Cheyenne tradition is for the umbilical cord of newborns to be dried and sewn into a pouch worn for the rest of their life.
"If we lose it," says Johnna, "our souls belong nowhere and after we die our souls will walk the Earth looking for where we belong." Inherent in the American tragedy, so suggests Mr. Letts, is that we have forsaken such wisdom and spiritual connectedness that is an article of faith in the soulful native American culture that we not only supplanted but wantonly demonized.
Along with that, the author suggests, we have squandered the sacred human currency of mutual respect, decency and kindness.
Of course, excellent material is essential to a rewarding theater experience, but the players must be up to the task. So must the person piloting the production, the director.
JUST 'PLAINS' FOLKS
As the play's only still-together married couple, Mattie Fae Aiken, Violet's sister, and Charlie, seasoned actors Julie Griffin (Ossining) and Jeffrey Schlotman (Pleasantville) turn in rip-roaring portrayals of unabashed "Plains" folks.
Levi Joseph Green (Bronx), as their son "Little Charles," and Maria Oppedisano (Harrison), as middle sister Ivy Weston, who want to be married, prove achingly vulnerable as lost souls who happily find a soulmate in each other.
As youngest sister Karen Weston, who lives in sunny Florida, Siobhan McKinley (Ridgefield) carries off most convincingly an innocence and lightness that offsets the decidedly darker deliberations of her unsunny siblings.
Michael E. Boyle, Jr. (Ossining), as Barbara's soon-to-be-ex Bill, and Anthony Barresi, Jr. (Peekskill), as Steve Heidebrecht, the naughty fiancée of Karen Weston, conjure a fellowship of free spirits whose devil-may-care posturing befits their helplessly horny impulses.
As helpful Sheriff Deon Gilbeau, who had courted Barbara in high school, Dan Forman (Yorktown Heights) projects a palpable discomfort in having to be the bearer of sad tidings. The sheriff's humble reticence helps lower the temperature, albeit briefly, of an otherwise over-heated pressure cooker.
AUSPICIOUS STAGE DEBUT
Special mention goes to Stella DeBeech, who plays Jean Fordham, precocious daughter of Barbara and Bill. Stella, a 15-year-old freshman at Ridgefield High School, studies with Cat Banks in Howard Meyer's Acting Program, and is making her stage debut in the play. I hope she keeps at it, because she's a natural who does impressive work here.
The three-act play's three hours whiz by. Directed with a firm grasp and theatrical smarts by Axial co-artistic director and stage veteran Catherine "Cat" Banks (Ossining), the pace stays reliably on track, moving mostly at breakneck speed.
Two set pieces indicative of her flair are the rambunctious dinner scene, where the audience intimately overlooks the outsize dining room table of nine people eating a real repast, as Violet ravenously feasts on her prey; and a scene where most of the actors are on stage at once, carrying on three or four simultaneous conversations in a cacophony of crosstalk. For a director, it's the proverbial challenge of herding cats, and, true to her name, Cat makes it all work purr-fectly.
So, save the date and location, May: Westchester County, for August: Osage County.
[NOTE: The author of this article is a member of the board of Axial Theatre, who also regularly reviews local theater in his Bruce The Blog Beyond Broadway column.]
Axial Theatre Presents
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY
by Tracy Letts
With Mickey Pantano*, D. Scott Faubel, Elizabeth D'Ottavio, Michel E. Boyle, Jr., Julie Griffin, Jeffrey Schlotman, Levi Joseph Green, Maria Oppedisano, Siobhan McKinley, Anthony Barresi, Jr., Dan Forman, Stella DeBeech, Alexandra Theodoroupoulos (*Appears with permission of Actors' Equity Association)
Directed by Catherine Banks
Lighting Design, Brian Pacelli
Sound Design, Jim Simonson
Production Stage Manager, Mary Cate Mangum
Stage Manager, Sabrina Fuchs
Stephen Palgon, Producer
Original Music, Jim Simonson
Through May 19, 2019
Axial Theater at St. John's Episcopal Church
8 Sunnyside Avenue
Pleasantville, New York 10570
Order Online Here
Order by Phone: 800-838-3006
Information: Axial Theatre