Wednesday, April 14, 2010

August: Osage County, PlayhouseSquare

(Estelle Parsons as Violet, standing, and the rest of the clan.)

Her delivery is as dry as a dust cloud sweeping across an Oklahoma plain—gritty and coarse and dangerous. And if you don’t treat yourself to the experience of seeing Estelle Parsons as the redoubtable Violet Weston in August: Osage County, now at PlayhouseSquare, then there really isn’t much hope for you.

This monumental play about family carnage, written by Tracy Letts, has won most awards in sight, including the Tony and the Pulitzer. But that’s less important than the journey it takes each audience member on, as Violet orchestrates a family gathering into a cacophonous collapse that is laugh-out-loud hilarious, consistently obscene and emotionally devastating, all at the same time.

After an opening scene in which the family patriarch and Vi’s hubby, Beverly, declares his love for alcohol and literature (in that order), he disappears from the family’s stately home outside Tulsa. After some days go by, Violet pushes through her pill-induced haze to convene her sister Mattie Fae, her three grown daughters, and their assorted immediate kin to come offer support.

And that’s when the fun begins, as each of these Westonites begin to reveal their weaknesses and vulnerabilities, under the scouring gaze and brutal—no, let’s make that abusive—honesty of Mama Violet. Letts and director Anna D. Shapiro craft incisive portraits of each of the 11 family members, and one never quite knows whether to stop laughing and start crying, or vice versa.

Swallowing an unending stream of muscle relaxants and downers, Parsons’ Violet is a five-foot-tall black hole of familial devastation. At 82 years of age, Parson has the bearing and energy of four 20–year-olds put together, but with the benefit of acting chops one only gathers over decades. She throws away pungent lines to remarkable effect, making Violet’s snark seem even more treacherous, as it is delivered with an off-handed casualness.

Parsons (yes, she won the Oscar for playing Blanche Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde) is ably backed up by actors in the other parts, and some are superb. As Violet’s eldest daughter Barbara, Shannon Cochran elicits many rueful chuckles as she battles with her now-separated husband Bill (an excellent Jeff Still) and her two siblings. At one point, she complains about the "greatest generation" noting: "They were poor and hated Nazis. Who didn't hate the Nazis?" As daughter Karen, Amy Warren is believably, goofily sweet, dragging along her fiancĂ© Steve, who is played to the clammily uncomfortable hilt by Laurence Lau.

The third daughter is Ivy, and while Angelica Torn handles the task well, she appears younger than her character’s 44 years which throws off different vibes, especially as she begins to fall for her young first cousin “Little” Charles (Steve Key). Libby George and Paul Vincent O’Connor create a functionally dysfunctional couple as Mattie Fae and Charlie Allen. And Emily Kinney is properly distracted and whiny as Bill and Barbara’s 14-year-old pothead daughter Jean.

But oddly, one of the best scenes is the first, when Beverly, played with exhausted nobility by Jon DeVries, interviews a young Cheyenne woman, Johnna, to be hired as cook and housekeeper. In those few minutes, DeVries allows the audience to internalize the sad desperation Beverly feels, and he remains a part of the show even though he never again appears.

In any show this expansive (it runs 3 ½ hours with two intermissions), there are bound to be some missteps. As Johnna, DeLanna Studi often seems awkward or forced, especially in a strange moment when she swings a frying pan at Steve, making it look like she’s playing badminton, badly. And Marcus Nelson as the Sherriff brings a new level of stiffness to the role of a flatfoot.

But performance pleasures abound on Todd Rosenthal’s glorious three-story set, making August: Osage County a primary destination for anyone who gives a damn about great theater.

August: Osage County

Through April 25 at the Palace Theatre,

PlayhouseSquare, 1615 Euclid Avenue,


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