Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Not Fade Away

September 09, 2009

Estelle Parsons and the cast of August: Osage County
Photo: Robert J Saferstein/CTG 2009

August: Osage County is a Great American Play. It’s a great play because it does a number of sophisticated things very well, all at the same time. It is hysterically funny. It is literary in an off-handed, unassuming way that bites you in the ass without you knowing it. It has a point of view without beating you over the head with it. And most of all, as with all of Tracy Letts’ plays to date, August has volumes to say about America at the start of the 21st century. It says these things, which may not always be easy to hear, without talking about politics or standing on a soapbox. Instead, Letts’ play, which is on a national tour now at the Ahmanson Theater downtown, takes on America at its very heart – both in geographic and emotional terms.

August: Osage County is about the Weston family of rural Oklahoma, who’ve come together in the wake of the disappearance of the family patriarch, Beverly Weston. They do what families always do in these situations, open old wounds while trying to simultaneously inflict new ones on one another. At the center of this reunion is Beverly’s wife, Violet, the razor-tongued mother of three adult women whose treatment for mouth cancer has morphed into a relapse of her addiction to pain medication. It’s difficult material that Letts delivers without a spoonful of sugar. It's like staring into the sun at times. Of course, this is the kind of strife that makes for the best laughs, and in this production, the role of Violet is left to the veteran Broadway star Estelle Parsons. She’s marvelous and gives an absolutely searing performance. Her appearance in Act II steers the audience from raucous laughter to dead silence with a word.

But this is an ensemble piece at heart, and the touring cast is filled with a number of very good performances. So many in fact, that the three and a half hour running time flies by in a wink. Yet, the feeling remains that even at this two-intermission, operatic length, that you’ve barely been able to spend the time you’d like to with these characters. August: Osage County is the kind of play that demands a second viewing. After seeing it in New York in 2007, where I had strong feelings about the play, I had some trepidation about what might be lost in this touring version. However, seeing it again has only made me more certain about how good this play is. The touring production, which follows the template of the original Steppenwolf staging under the direction of Anna D. Shapiro, is somewhat different this time around with a broader, looser feel that mines more from the many, many laugh lines in the script. Yet it never descends into haminess or self-caricature. But make no mistake, even if it may not have the same razor’s edge, it cuts very deeply just the same.

I sit in a lot of dark theaters throughout the year, and this is one of those experiences you wait for because it is truly unique. To sit in an audience and hear the amount of living laughter, gasps, and sobbing present with August: Osage County is not a typically theater-going experience these days. But, if you’re in Los Angeles, you have a number of chances through October 18 to have this one yourself.



Nice review Brian. I agree, this is the best play I've seen in years for the reasons you articulated. I may try to see it again while I'm in LA this weekend. For a differing opinion, see Patrick's (Reverberate Hills) take on it.
I hope you do. And I hope your visit in LA goes well. As for Patrick, it's a great thing that we we are all entitled to our periodic wrongness.
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