THEATER REVIEW ‘AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY’
Mama Doesn’t Feel Well, but Everyone Else Will Feel Much Worse
A fraught, densely plotted saga of an Oklahoma clan in a state of near-apocalyptic meltdown, “August” is probably the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years. Oh, forget probably: It is, flat-out, no asterisks and without qualifications, the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years. Fiercely funny and bitingly sad, this turbo-charged tragicomedy — which spans three acts and more than three blissful hours — doesn’t just jump-start the fall theater season, recently stalled when the stagehands went on strike. “August” throws it instantaneously into high gear.
In other words, this isn’t theater-that’s-good-for-you theater. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, to quote an immortal line from a beloved sitcom.) It’s theater that continually keeps you hooked with shocks, surprises and delights, although it has a moving, heart-sore core. Watching it is like sitting at home on a rainy night, greedily devouring two, three, four episodes of your favorite series in a row on DVR or DVD. You will leave the Imperial Theater emotionally wrung out and exhausted from laughing, but you may still find yourself hungry for more.
“August” was first staged over the summer at the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago. That production, with a terrific cast superbly directed by Anna D. Shapiro, has been imported virtually wholesale for the Broadway run. Among the many pleasures the show affords is the chance to see actors largely unknown in New York — perhaps, most vitally, Deanna Dunagan, who plays an evil mom to end them all — take the city by storm with the harsh humor, ferocity and keen feeling of their performances.
Ms. Dunagan is Violet Weston, the razor-tongued matriarch of a family from Pawhuska, near Tulsa. Early on in the play, Violet’s husband of more than 30 years, a poet and former professor, mysteriously — or perhaps not so mysteriously — walks off into a sultry summer night, never to be heard from again. (The exhausted paterfamilias, Beverly, played with lovely wit and rue by the playwright’s father, Dennis Letts, opens the play with a lyrical dirge assessing the state of his marriage: “My wife takes pills, and I drink,” he says. “That’s the bargain we’ve struck.”)
The couple’s three adult daughters are called back to the family homestead, husbands or boyfriends in tow, to comfort Mother in her time of need, and try to get to the bottom of Dad’s disappearance. (Todd Rosenthal designed the tiered, haunted-house set, artfully strewn with shadows by the lighting designer Ann G. Wrightson.) All three offspring exhibit clear indications of past, present or future emotional damage.
Surrounded though Violet is by her extended family — which also includes her abrasive sister, Mattie Fae (a howlingly funny Rondi Reed), and Mattie Fae’s henpecked husband, Charlie (Francis Guinan) — she does not really seem to be a woman in great need of succor and support. Yes, she’s got cancer of the mouth. And a serious addiction to downers. She is often self-medicated to the point of incoherence, and prone to childish hysterics when crossed.
But Violet also possesses a spirit of aggression that a pro linebacker would envy, and a sixth sense for finding and exploiting the sore spots and secret hurts of everyone around her. For Violet, a child of poverty, neglect and abuse, the will to endure is inextricably tied up with the desire to fight and the need to wound. She can keep the blood in her own veins flowing only by drawing blood from others. (The play could almost be called “My Mother the Vampire.”)
And so, needlessly, pointlessly and endlessly, Violet sets about psychologically flaying her nearest and dearest, one by one, taking impotent revenge for the miseries of her life by picking at the scabs of everyone else’s.
The results are as harrowing as they are hilarious. Ms. Dunagan is simply magnificent in this fabulously meaty role. Such is the mesmerizing power of her performance that as Violet’s snake eyes scan the horizon for a fresh victim, claw-hand dragging a Winston to her grimly set mouth, you may actually find yourself sinking in your seat, irrationally praying that she doesn’t pick on you. (I was cowering myself.)
The cast does not have a weak link, and the other major female roles, in particular, are rewarding and perfectly played. (Only Ms. Martin and Mr. Kerwin, both excellent, are new to the production.) Ms. Murphy’s sad-eyed Ivy has a plaintive tenderness that occasionally flares up into a defensive assertion of the justice of her needs. Ms. Mayberry makes Karen’s drawly, long-winded narcissism oddly touching — you sense she’s still recovering from a lifetime of being talked over or ignored.
Ms. Reed flaps and squawks hilariously as the vulgar Mattie Fae, who shares with her sister a brazen heedlessness of other people’s feelings. Perhaps finest of all is Ms. Morton’s Barbara, who gradually — and frightfully — begins to metamorphose before our eyes into a boozing, brutalizing mirror image of her mother.
I’ll leave you with one that neatly expresses the bleak spirit of the play, which nevertheless manages to provide great pleasure by delving into deep wells of cruelty and pain. Recalling a night of youthful high spirits in sad contrast to the gruesome present, Barbara seeks to wise up her daughter to the decay of hope and happiness that often comes with the passage of time.
“Thank God we can’t tell the future,” she observes, “or we’d never get out of bed.”
By Tracy Letts; directed by Anna D. Shapiro; sets by Todd Rosenthal; costumes by Ana Kuzmanic; lighting by Ann G. Wrightson; sound by Richard Woodbury; music by David Singer; dramaturg, Edward Sobel. A Steppenwolf Theater Company production, presented by Jeffrey Richards, Jean Doumanian, Steve Traxler, Jerry Frankel, Ostar Productions, Jennifer Manocherian, the Weinstein Company, Debra Black/Daryl Roth, Ronald and Marc Frankel/Barbara Freitag and Rick Steiner/Staton Bell Group. At the Imperial Theater, 249 West 45th Street; (212) 239-6200. Through March 9. Running time: 3 hours 10 minutes.
WITH: Ian Barford (Little Charles), Deanna Dunagan (Violet Weston), Kimberly Guerrero (Johnna Monevata), Francis Guinan (Charlie Aiken), Brian Kerwin (Steve Heidebrecht), Dennis Letts (Beverly Weston), Madeleine Martin (Jean Fordham), Mariann Mayberry (Karen Weston), Amy Morton (Barbara Fordham), Sally Murphy (Ivy Weston), Jeff Perry (Bill Fordham), Rondi Reed (Mattie Fae Aiken) and Troy West (Sheriff Deon Gilbeau).