Review: Tracy Letts' AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY at the Carrollwood Players

Runs thru May 18th!

By: May. 12, 2024
Review: Tracy Letts' AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY at the Carrollwood Players
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“This is the perfect Mother’s Day show…because you’re gonna love your mother after it!” –director Marc Sanders in his pre-show speech

You would be hard-pressed to find a family more dysfunctional than the Weston clan from AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY.  They make the Tyrone’s from Long Day’s Journey Into Night or the Goodman’s from Next to Normal seem positively Brady-esque.  You would have to venture to the demented land of Taylor Mac in Hir or to the world of the movies--The Royal Tenenbaums, American Beauty, Happiness, or anything by John Waters--to find an equally appalling household.

The story of AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY can be quite complex, since a myriad of family members of all ages come and go, each with a separate character arc. With a wink to The Brady Bunch (the Weston’s goody-goody pop culture opp), the plot goes like this: Here’s the story of a man named Beverly, who was bringing up three not-so-lovely girls (now adults) with his pill-popping, cancer-stricken wife, Violet. When the alcoholic Beverly goes missing, his daughters arrive in the family home outside Pawhuska, Oklahoma, during this time of crisis: The emotional, no-BS Barbara, whose marriage to Bill is disintegrating and whose teenage daughter, Jean, just wants to get stoned and roll her eyes in a huff as she watches old Lon Chaney movies on TV; Ivy, whose romance to her first cousin, Little Charles Aiken, will pave the way to some tough truths; and the vacuous Karen, whose slick, smooth-talking fiance, Steve, has pedophilic tendencies. Add to all that Violet’s outspoken sister, Mattie Fay; Mattie’s hubby, Charlie; and two relatively normal characters who act as the audience’s surrogate: the Sheriff, Deon Gilbeau, and the newly hired Native American housekeeper, Johanna, who proves she can do more with a skillet than cook.  

And that’s the way they became the Weston bunch.

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, which deservedly won playwright Tracy Letts the Pulitzer Prize among other awards,  takes place over several hot August days and nights, where family lies are unearthed, secrets revealed, and more dirt, once swept under the rug, has now been exposed. It’s a show that is both blisteringly hilarious and proudly uncomfortable. On the night I saw the current production at the Carrollwood Players, the audience was gasping, calling out, laughing, applauding, and when quiet, sitting on the edge of their seats so they don’t miss anything.  Their reactions and the show’s cast helped make this long play feel brisk and never tedious (it runs about twenty minutes shy of four hours with two intermissions).  In fact, I have seen shows half its length that felt so much longer, sometimes excruciatingly so. But this production has become a can’t-miss thrill ride, so please don’t let its seemingly daunting run-time scare you away.  It needs to be experienced.

The cast reads like a Who’s-Who of local performers. 

I finally get to see the great Jim Russell onstage, and his Beverly Weston, the hard-drinking patriarch to all this craziness, is a wondrous mess of contradictions--burning cynicism meets a matter-of-fact view of his world and of his unbalanced wife; he’s both unsteady on his feet but  grounded in his fate.  Mr. Russell is so good, never once overplaying his hand; he lets Mr. Letts’ marvelous lines guide him. He’s so real and likable, that when he speaks, never once raising his voice, we lean in to hear him.  He rightly sets the stage for the mayhem to follow.

In the central role of firecracker Violet--one of the great parts of this century, a part every older actress worth her salt would die to tackle--Julie Korzenik is a revelation. You get the feeling that she really is unhinged on pills, loopy and swaying, slurring her words and stuttering.  You want to run onstage and steer her to her seat.  But you also get the feeling that there’s more to Violet than the overt effects of her pills.  She’s mean and actually gets off on being mean--a purring cat that turns into a tiger ready to verbally maul its next victim.  Meanness is her art form.  

Yet, her Violet also gets more empathy and pity from me than the other actresses I have seen in past productions who played the role (including the film version). Make no mistake, Ms. Korzenik’s Violet is still a demon, but she’s a demon we find ourselves feeling sorry for, no matter how strikingly awful she becomes. The audience oftentimes laughed at her antics, including the end of Act 1 to the tune of Eric Clapton’s “Lay Down Sally,” but I found myself pitying her as the audience guffawed. And in the end, when she finds herself abandoned and alone, we understand that even though much of the havoc is all due to her own actions and inactions, we find compassion for her nonetheless.

Jessie Mease makes her mark as Barbara, and she gets to showcase a role that takes her on a amusement park ride of emotions.  She’s all over the map.  Her reactions to the fate of one of the character’s demise became astoundingly real to me, worthy of my awe.  There were some moments when I found her playing more to us, the audience, than to the other characters onstage, but then she would do something miraculous, truly connecting with all around her, and all would be forgiven.  In some ways, AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY is Barabra’s show, and Ms. Mease plays it for all it’s worth.

Kelly McGuire makes for a fine Mattie Faye, sort of the anchor for the show, a drink in her hand and a smile or sneer as if she's smelling something horrid.  Thomas Pahl, playing her beleaguered husband, gets perhaps the best moment of the production that caused the audience to laugh loudly and burst into spontaneous applause. Eric Misener does well in the thankless role of Bill, a man who is leaving his wife for a younger woman and trying to keep sane as all are losing their heads around him.  As Bill and Barbara’s teen daughter, Jean, Holly Richard is quite strong, very real and a real find. She has a way with a comeback that left audience members gobsmacked; her almost defiantly laid-back reaction to some of the batshit craziness surrounding her and her family seemed too plausible for comfort. Terrific work.

Sam Sacasa nicely underplays the part of Johanna Monevata.  Klinton Blair brings a welcome ordinariness to the part of the Sheriff, and Joshua Miller perfectly nails the shlubby nature of  Little Charles.  We understand the motivations of Ivy Weston, wonderfully played by Maria Barbera, and Anna Hoyt brings out the acute vapidity of her sister, Karen.  My only issue here is that the actresses may seem much younger than the parts have been called for (women in their early forties), but we easily suspend our disbelief.     

Jimmy Barringer dives right into the slick scoundrel villainy of Steve, Karen’s fiancé.  He does what all good actors do when playing unpleasant parts--ram head-first into the character’s hideousness, which makes his eventual comeuppance even sweeter. The breezy, relaxed ickiness that seethes from the character works, and the audience couldn’t help but squirm in their seats whenever he appeared, which is a very good thing considering the part.  Brave work by Mr. Barringer.

Director Marc Sanders guides his talented cast, with not a weak link in the bunch, moving them appropriately, adjusting for the stage size, and sometimes getting out of the way when necessary so that the actors can do their thing.  It’s an astounding production, led by someone who thankfully knows what he is doing.

Before the show, I worried about the set, which is usually two or three storied, but that would be an impossibility with the intimate Carrollwood Players stage. But my concerns soon evaporated. The set is certainly busy, appropriately cluttered where the set dressers and prop masters/mistresses have worked overtime.  Every inch of the stage is utilized, and there’s an immediate sense of disarray and clutter. The pre-show music, featuring the works of Eric Clapton (from “Bell Bottom Blues” to “Wonderful Tonight,” from “White Room” to “I Shot the Sheriff”), gets us in the right mood for the Clapton-tuned chaos to follow.

As the director mentioned in his pre-show announcement, AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY is an odd choice for a Mother’s Day weekend.  But it’s also perfect because it makes us cherish our own mothers, whether living or dead, even more.  It’s a show that’s both fun and brutal, lengthy but never boring, heart-stopping and soul-stirring, and yet unblinking and sympathetic in its portrait of an American family in unruly disintegration.

With its A-1 cast and a director at the top of his game, the current production of AUGUST: OSAGE  COUNTY is up there with The Normal Heart as one of the best shows  I’ve ever seen at the Carrollwood Players. Judging from their enthusiastic reactions, both of shock and awe, the audience would surely agree.

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY runs through May 18th at the Carrollwood Players. 

Photo by Jessica Butterer Photo.


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