AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY is a Masterpiece Production for Keegan Theatre
Admit it. There are skeletons in the closets of every family.
In the world Tracy Letts created for his prize-winning play AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, the skeletons are just bigger than others. Some of them are yanked out of the closet for shock value. Others are kept hidden from view. Still others walk around in plain sight.
The parade of dysfunction on display in AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY drew the attention of the theatre world when it premiered in Chicago in 2007. Once the dark comedy hit Broadway, it took the Tony Award for best play and a Pulitzer Prize for drama.
The play is written in the tradition of such iconic plays as LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT and WHO’S AFRAID OF Virginia Woolf? It achieves an almost poetic vulgarity and mines scathing humor from the darkest corners of a family’s despair.
A play of such scope and depth requires an expert director who is able to help the actors bring truth to the characters and the three-hour-plus story they have to tell. The actors also have to be both a powerhouse ensemble and skilled as individual performers to carry off the epic emotions called for in the script.
As Hollywood plans a film version of the play, I am convinced that I really don’t need to rush out to see the movie once it is released. (That’s with all due respect to Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, proposed film cast members.) Having just experienced the play in Keegan’s magnificent production, the idea of sitting in a movie theatre telling the same story just seems wrong.
Director Mark A. Rhea has assembled a group of actors who are able to bring to the stage both nuances and grand moments of theatrical showmanship. Assisted by the brilliant set design of Stefan Gibson, which fully utilizes the tight Church Street Theatre space, Rhea takes the world playwright Tracy Letts created on the page and puts the audience right up against the dirty walls and covered windows of the Weston’s nearly dilapidated home.
And then we meet the skeletons.
In a house of crooked paintings, overflowing ashtrays and buried secrets, Beverley Weston is the father of three grown daughters. He is a former poet and a steady alcoholic and the audience first encounters him waxing poetically as he hires a Native American woman to cook and clean. Veteran actor Stan Shulman – one of the Keegan’s founders – brings a weary charm to his brief but haunting appearance.
The meat of the play unfolds after Beverly has disappeared, which leads the local authorities to discover his death. His presence is still very much felt, up until the final, chilling moments of the third act. (Sorry, no spoilers here.)
The daughters all return home to deal with their father’s disappearance and the aftermath of his death, bringing with them spouse, child, boyfriend, and the like. Each daughter handles the fraught situation in different ways, with varying degrees of success.
Quiet and dutiful Ivy stayed the closest to home and is the first to arrive. The middle sister, Ivy is not a showy character and Belen Pifel brings understated truth to the role.
Returning from Florida, we learn that baby sister Karen has tried many different avenues in her unsuccessful desire to be happy. Karen has a romantic side, but seems blinded to the ugliness that is closest to her. Karen Novack is adept at bringing out the different shades of the wounded youngest sister.
Tough and forceful, even while dealing with her own troubled marriage and teen-aged daughter, oldest sister Barbara comes home to take charge. Barbara is the alpha-female of her sisters, and is a role Susan Marie Rhea was born to play. Ms. Rhea is blessed with a sharp focus, husky voice and riveting stage presence that transfers into a strong central performance.
As Beverly’s wife and the mother of the Weston girls, Mr. Letts created a character that, in my estimation, is a female equivalent of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Addicted to pain pills and a self-sentenced prisoner in her own house, Violet Weston is the broken heart of AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY. Violet is the fount of all family knowledge and the purveyor of truth, no matter how painful or personal it might be. Her moments of clarity, violent outbursts and bitter sense of humor – colored by a palette of every downer on a pharmacists’ shelf – make for one of the most vivid characters, male or female, I have seen or read.
Brought to life with every fiber of her actor’s instrument, Rena Cherry Brown is a Violet Weston for the ages. Supple, brittle, omniscient, precious, brutal and demur – Rena’s skin is Violet’s skin. I do not throw out terms like “tour-de-force” with every review, but Rena Cherry Brown’s performance as Violet Weston in The Keegan Theatre’s production of AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY deserves it.
The other members of Mark A. Rhea’s cast contribute to the success of the production. Kerry Waters Lucas, as Violet’s sister Mattie Fae, Kevin Adams, as Mattie Fae’s husband Charlie, and Michael Innocenti, as Little Charlie each find moments to shine throughout their scenes. As Barbara’s philandering husband, Bill, Colin Smith has subtlety and as pot-headed daughter Jean, Lyndsay Rini strikes a balance between rebellion and innocence.
Key supporting roles are handled well by Shadia Hafiz, Charlie Abel, and Eric Lucas.
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY continues at The Keegan Theatre through September 2, 2012. If previous sold out performances are any indication, you’d better get your tickets now so you do not miss Rena Cherry Brown, Susan Marie Rhea and the entire company at Church Street.
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, a play by Tracy Letts. Mark A. Rhea, director. Run time: approximately 3 hours. The Keegan Theatre at Church Street in Dupont Circle, through September 2, 2012. Curtain is 7:30 pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturday evenings, with 3 pm Sunday matinees. 703.892.0202
Photo Credit: Keegan Theatre and C. Stanley Photography