BWW Reviews: Gutsy, Riveting AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY at Eight O'clock Theatre

God bless Eight O'clock Theater. Unlike other community theatre organizations that play it safe with such shows as Barefoot in the Park, Hello Dolly, and the yawningly overdone farces of Michael Parker, the fine folks at EOT follow their gutsy summer production of Hair with the even gutsier AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY. This is an absorbing, blistering production that should not be missed by anyone who thrives on daring, superbly written shows.

Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize winning play surrounds the disappearance of Beverly Weston (Michael Mahoney), husband of the pill-popping Violet and patriarch of a trio of daughters and their families. Over several hot August days, family lies are unearthed, secrets revealed and any dirt that tries to be swept under the rug is exposed in an avalanche of raw emotions. It's a snapshot of a family in disintegration, a madhouse, both entertaining and uncomfortable, that certainly kept the appreciative Saturday night audience members on the edge of their seats. It is rightly considered one of the finest written American plays of the past two decades, just behind Tony Kushner's Angels in America. (You would never know this if you saw the horrid hatchet job that was done to the script in the Meryl Streep movie; as usual, a live performance trumps the film version of a theatrical work.)

You know the EOT production will be stellar the moment you enter the theatre and lay your eyes on Tom Hansen's divine set. Clustered, beautifully cluttered, intricate yet busy, there's something appropriately oppressive here--like a cage of sorts where all of these creatures of the Plains are on display in an ultra-emo zoo. Dalton Hamilton's lighting hits just the right note, and Terri Rick's costumes work quite well (especially Little Charles' mismatched jacket and tie).

The ensemble is incredibly strong. This doesn't seem like your typical array of community theatre actors; this is an adventurous group of emotive risk-takers. Donna Donnelly's mad matriarch Violet is the showiest role--one of the showiest roles in any show anywhere--and always seems on the verge of collapse. She's a pendulum swinging in fast motion, off the charts crazy. It's a harrowing portrayal of addiction. Her Act 2 dinner table attack is an actor's dream.

As her eldest daughter, Barbara, Linda Roth-Grayne is, in a word, brilliant. She is always in the moment, listening and reacting. Her character shows so many shades, so many changes, that she becomes the play's central figure--taking charge not just of the household, but of the show.

My favorite is Jonathan Pouliot as the schlub Little Charles, played with just the right amount of confusion and disappointment. There is such a lowly sadness in him, and Pouliot plays the slacker fool to a tee. It's not a showy role--certainly nowhere near the electric theatrics of Violet and company--but he proves how someone can take a smaller part and, whenever onstage, steal the whole play.

As Barbara's sisters, Ivy and Karen, Catherine Harp and Stephanie Bell have some great moments, especially when they sit outside and chat at the start of Act 3. You really do believe they're actually sisters.

T.J. Gill is quite good as Uncle Charles, Bev's brother-in-law, and Linda Woodruff Weir makes a wonderfully robust Aunt Mattie. Ben Taylor holds things together as Barbara's husband, the comparatively sane (and adulterous) Bill. Thom Jay plays the part of Steve, Karen's gooey slick fiancé, to creepy perfection. Margee Sapowsky tackles the part of Barbara's daughter, the teenaged Jean, as a sort of Goth stoner, and the interpretation works. Her scenes with the uber-perv Steve are intentionally uncomfortable, to put it mildly.

As strong as the cast is, sometimes lines got lost with diction issues, especially near the beginning when important information is given but we can't decipher what exactly is being said (we lost the end of some key sentences). Act 1, which is pretty much all exposition, had some pacing issues, but Act 2 and Act 3 were positively spellbinding. Some of the fight scenes were marvelously handled (including one involving a swinging frying pan), but sometimes, such as a slap in the face or someone stopping someone else from punching another person, they seemed rather stagey. Also, I wanted to see more of Sheriff Deon Gilbeau (Brad Barkley), because he actually plays an important role; but his Act 3 scene with Barbara was cut due to time issues (the show runs three hours with two intermissions....but don't worry, it's an incredibly swift three hours).

I wish the people in charge of gathering the props had picked the correct Eric Clapton album that is featured in the show. The song "Lay Down Sally" plays on the turntable, but the album cover that is shown onstage is "The History of Eric Clapton," which does not contain that song (they should have used "Slowhand" instead). I know this is nitpicking, but whenever theatre magic breaks even for a moment due to anachronisms or minor flubs, then it must be called out.

I really like how director Rutherford made the show his own. For instance, the opening puts us in the right frame of mind, when an acoustic version of "Layla" plays and Bev opens his door to meet his new housekeeper, Johnna (Ana Bernot-Reilley). Rutherford has his actors take their time throughout the show, sometimes remaining outside the house after their scenes, standing and thinking, unable to move due to their mulling over some world-shattering revelation. Little directorial flourishes like these show there is a clever guide behind this familial madness.

One scene needs a special mention, where every character chatters at the same time, reminding me of the old Tiki Birds from Disney World; it's simply glorious, truly Altmanesque, and one of my favorite moments in a year of theatre-going.

My hat goes off to everyone involved in this incredible experience, including those responsible for creating the program; they smartly added a Weston family tree to help us know who's who in this crazy kinfolk maze.

Eight O'clock Theatre's AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY plays at the Largo Cultural Center and runs through August 31st. Call (727) 587-6793 for tickets. Please note that the play contains strong language and adult content, and is recommended for mature audiences only.

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From This Author Peter Nason


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