By Patrick Hurley
Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer-Prize winning play August: Osage County, playing now through September 27 at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, explores the hideous depths of dysfunction in the American family. And for the high-stakes Weston’s, the depths are as dysfunctional as they are seemingly endless. This behemoth of a play, which r
uns nearly three hours long, sees all the members of this family dig their claws into each other and never relent. It is a representation of the American dream, the American landscape, a close examination of what it means to be part of a family, in this case part of a tribe, really, in modern day America. When patriarch Beverly (Tim Halligan) disappears without a word, his wife, the cancer-stricken and completely drug-addled Violet (Ellen Geer) calls her three grown daughters to come home and wait for their father to return. Ivy (Abby Craden), the only daughter who lives nearby, arrives first. She is the quietest of the women in this family, and she suffers her mother’s often cruel taunts and mean-spirited comments. Violet hounds Ivy to put on make-up and wear better clothes, so she’ll attract a man. Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Melora Marshall) and her husband Charlie (Alan Blumenfeld) are also on hand for support, but more often than not just end up bickering about their own issues, mainly the welfare of their oddball son, Little Charles (Sam Trueman).
Barbara (Susan Angelo) arrives with her husband Bill (Aaron Hendry) who is currently having an affair with a younger woman, and their pot-smoking apathetic fourteen-year old daughter Jean (Judy Durkin). Barbara and Bill, are facing the end of their marriage, and an angst-ridden teenage daughter as the drama of Beverly’s whereabouts unfolds. Then there’s Karen (Willow Geer), the chatty and obnoxiously positive sister who arrives from Florida with her fiancé Steve (Mark Lewis). Karen is caught up in the philosophy of “living now,” while her fiancé seems to have eyes for fourteen-year old Jean. Rounding out the household is Johnna (Jeanette Godoy) a Native-American woman that Beverly hired as a live-in housekeeper right before he disappeared. Her presence makes Violet uncomfortable, and she isn’t shy about bringing it up.
Once the family is all assembled, word comes that Beverly has drowned, and that’s really when this play kicks into it’s high dysfunctional gear. The funeral dinner alone, takes an entire Act to get through. The venom that is spewed by Violet toward her family is like some kind of cruel acrid poetry that lingers in the air after she hisses it out, like smog. The bringing together of these people, who otherwise have nothing to do with each other’s lives, causes self-examination, more than one physical altercation, and plenty of laughter. Of course, the laughs are usually coming at the expense of the characters, because these are people in deep dysfunction. And what’s more funny than that? It shows us what family looks like at it’s absolute worst moments. Who doesn’t want to see that? It’s like a slow train wreck.
This production does a solid job with this huge piece. Director Mary Jo DuPrey uses the expansive set quite efficiently, and the momentum of the play is only broken a few times, because of scene changes. Eliminating the second intermission, which is usually where the funeral dinner scene is cleared, made the scene change a bit clumsy and lengthy. But even with a few bumps, the show still works. The outdoor theater, though not an obvious choice for this play, actually serves it well. It feels like a small part of Oklahoma surrounding the house.
The cast dives head first into the material, and everyone does a great job. As sharp-tongued, word-slurring Violet, Ellen Geer is fantastic. Her Violet is acerbic, cruel, antagonistic, and yet strangely sad. She is able to balance the sourness with veracity, a deep truth that allows her to be human, not a caricature. As Barbara, Susan Angelo goes for a more subtle tactic. There is a no-nonsense appeal to her that slowly unravels throughout the play, and Ms. Angelo really grabs a hold of that and allows the unraveling to seem authentic, she never pushes too far.
The ensemble of actors in this show are truly commendable for tackling such an enormous and highly dramatic piece, and keeping it from going over-the-top. The play itself walks a fine line between drama and melodrama, and Tracy Letts is a brilliant playwright just in his ability to walk that line for nearly three hours, and never cross it. However, the roles are written in such a way that actors could jump into histrionics and caricature, and for what it’s worth no one in this production is guilty of that. They are all interested in finding the truth in their performances, and that, above all else, makes this production a complete success, and so much fun to watch.
August: Osage County
By Tracy Letts
Directed by Mary Jo DuPrey
June 20-September 27
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum
1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd.
Topanga, CA 90290