Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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With A Bang

May 30, 2011

The Cast of August: Osage County. Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF 2011

One measure of a great play is how well it survives when it is produced by theater companies outside of the bright lights of Broadway or part of some national tour. When a work gets out and about among regional theaters large and small, can it still pack the same emotional punch that makes audiences want to return to it again and again? Tracy Letts’ landmark August: Osage County is starting to meet that challenge across the U.S.; and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has been quick to take up the work for their own excellent company. The first thing that struck me seeing the play now away from its original 2007 Steppenwolf/Broadway staging is how large the work is. There is a big ensemble cast of 13, (well at least big by the standards of the current economically challenged American theater) and the majority of them spend most of their time on stage. The script calls for several different interior rooms spread out over two floors and an attic. And the play itself is three acts that runs over three and a half hours. It’s no small undertaking, but the good news is that Christopher Liam Moore’s staging for Ashland demonstrates that a company with the requisite ambition can pull it off. OSF’s August: Osage County manages to be more than a faithful reproduction of a fantastic original. It’s a splendid revival that further argues for the importance of Letts’ masterpiece.

Judith-Marie Bergan and DeLanna Studi Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF 2011

August is a comedy, but a decidedly downbeat one. The three daughters of Beverly and Violet Weston, along with their significant others, have gathered together following their father's unexplained disappearance. They are also joined by Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae, and her family. The Weston’s are an all-American clan of the plains and their own unique brand of dysfunction unfolds deliberately over the course of the performance. Violet is a hard woman, to put it mildly, and the irony of her struggle against mouth cancer is lost on no one. There are lovely, detailed and perfectly packaged scenes that unfold one after another as things fall apart including a superb set piece in the second half of Act II where a large family dinner crosses the fine line from passive to active aggression. And while the play is filled with big laughs and more than a few surprises, it is not a feel good family drama. Letts is after big game here like the American Dream and the myth of American progress like some latter-day Great Gatsby. No one walks away unscathed in this culture war, and all of these characters are ostensibly on the same side.

Bill Geisslinger and Robynn Rodriguez Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF 2011

OSF’s staging manages to arrange all of the Weston’s home on a two level set that maintains the requisite rooms, but envisions a more cozy space where the privacy of any conversation in the Weston’s home is called into question. It’s a nice touch that reinforces the notion of the many open secrets that plague this family. Moore’s approach to the Weston’s softens some of the harder edges of the family. Judith-Marie Bergan’s take on viper-tongued Violet is kinder in its view of her cognitive decline than some of her predecessors in the role. However, this works beautifully in collaboration with Robynn Rodriguez’ take on oldest daughter Barbara, who is decidedly less sympathetic than I’ve seen before, making the relationship between mother and daughter more intriguing and logical.

This is a family of rather unpleasant people, and where the audience places its allegiance and connection is a critical issue. To date, that locus of identification has typically gone to Ivy, the middle daughter whose years of suffering close to her mother have left her numb. Terri McMahon’s Ivy is particularly removed, almost to the point of being autistic. It’s a choice that brilliantly forces more connection with Johnna, played to perfection by DeLanna Studi, the Native American housekeeper Beverly hires to help with Violet, and who serves as the spiritual center of the work. Johnna's ascendance is the final link in shifting the audience away from seeing the Weston’s as a comically exaggerated melodramatic version of their own lives. Instead we are asked to identify with Johnna whose connection to the poetry of T.S. Eliot and stance as an outsider reinforces the loftier and infinitely more piercing aspects of Letts’ critique. Who are we Americans and how on earth did we get where we are, so far away from what we once were?

But perhaps I make August: Osage County sound heavier than it is. I could go on and on about the other wonderful members of the ensemble. Kate Mulligan is the best Karen I've yet seen. Bill Geisslinger's Bill Fordham and Jeffrey King's Steve Heidebrecht are both marvelous. The audience gasps, hearts race, and there are still peels of laughter. But don't take my word for it, go see for yourself. While these laughs may not come easy, OSF’s August: Osage County is surely a highlight of this year’s season; and a visit to Ashland would not be complete without it.


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