BWW Review: AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY at Theatre Tulsa
If you've seen American family dramas, you've already seen arguments erupt around the dinner table, secrets whispered in dark corners, and pontification from oblivious patriarchs - but in August: Osage County, playwright Tracy Letts makes a bid for the most grand and outrageous possible rendering of these tropes. How wonderful then for Tulsa audiences that his play is set just a few miles from home, near Pawhuska, OK: while it takes a few scenes to become acquainted with the prickly Weston family, we can't help but be immediately understanding of their plains-induced malaise.
Theatre Tulsa's production of August: Osage County combines an electrifying cast with this Pulitzer Prize-winning exemplar of dramatic storytelling about the dysfunctional family with hilarious and tragic results. The play is long - 3 acts with two 10-minute intermissions - but it goes quickly, because there is a lot of story to tell about the Westons. The play begins when the Weston patriarch, Beverly (played by Andy Axewell, who incidentally was the body-double for this character in the 2013 film adaptation) hiring a Cherokee housekeeper to watch over his house and drug-addled, vicious wife. She appears so coarse and vulgar when she stumbles in to the interview that Beverly describes her mouth cancer as a "punch line". By the next scene, he has disappeared, never to return.
Beverly's wife Violet, the Weston matriarch, is the anchor of the show. In Theatre Tulsa, she was played with great fervor and depth by Vivica Walkenbach, who capitalized on every single moment of Violet's humor and cruelty in equal measure. The three Weston sisters each added their own unique intensity and pain into the family mix. Barbara, played by Cathy Woods, took a short while to find her footing, but closed the play with a beautifully haunting performance in its final scenes. Kristin Robert as Ivy authentically depicted her character's anguish and joy without gimmicks or inappropriately detracting from the ensemble. Leslie Long brought a bubbly, explosive energy to her portrayal of Karen that might have felt excessive if it weren't so delightful.
The Weston family is fleshed out by Beverly's brother Charlie and his wife Mattie Fae, played by Alden Anderson and Harriet Chenault respectively. These two made a stellar pair: Chenault's wonderful comedic timing catalyzed the laughs from the moment she came on stage in the first act, and Anderson packed so much emotional heft into his big speech that he got a round of applause for it on opening night. Their son "Little Charles" was played by Fletcher Gross with a heartbreaking earnestness. Non-members of the Weston family include the Sheriff (Will Carpenter) who is tensely investigating Beverly's disappearance, Karen's obnoxious and vile fiancé Steve (Jeff Jimenez), and finally Johnna (Lisa Hunter), the housekeeper who serves as an audience stand-in while she observes the Westons bicker and mourn.
Other standout performances included real-life high school freshman Anabel White as Jean, who tackled the challenges and complexities of her role with grace, and Kurt Harris as Barbara's soon-to-be-ex-husband Bill, whose understated depiction of anger and emotional exhaustion provided a welcome respite from the more rambunctious energy of his on stage family. This formidable crew was supported by direction from Tulsa mainstay Lisa Stefanic. The magnificent set design by Richard Ellis also enhanced the production's powerful performances: the carefully devised levels of depth and height provided a hyper-realistic backdrop to the play's stylized naturalism.
Letts' script is a bit heavy-handed when it explicitly gestures to parallels between the demise of the American experiment and the dissolution of the Weston clan - the play's themes of poorly buried history, the limits of social obligation, and the difficulties of authentic communication are evident enough without being named explicitly. However, Beverly and Barbara's self-consciously rambling monologues do lend an epic context to what might otherwise seem like trivial, though harrowing, instances of familial dysfunction. At one point, Barbara remarks, "Dissipation is much worse than cataclysm." Violet, it seems, is striving for a cataclysm through her "truth telling", or at least a kind of climax to make it all mean something. Instead, the dissolution of her world is excruciatingly incremental - but my goodness, it makes for great theatre.
Get tickets for Theatre Tulsa's August: Osage County here, playing at the Tulsa PAC through February 23rd.