Black Sheep Darken The Prairie

Arts Scene

Oklahoma Family Of 'August: Osage County' Puts On A Dismal, Convincing Display Of Dysfunction

December 01, 2009|By Tim Smith

The windows of the Westons' house, located 60 miles northwest of Tulsa, are covered with dark paper year-round. The inhabitants "don't differentiate between night and day." They're content to be trapped in a long, dim tunnel of memories, some suppressed and others obsessed over, until one family member chooses to escape the hard way.

Ramifications of that decision provide abundant fuel for the three-hour-plus running time of "August: Osage County," the 2008 Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning roller-coaster of a play by Tracy Letts that is now at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater. Getting to know the Westons and all their secrets is an experience that will haunt you for days after.

With a certain debt to Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee (and maybe even the "Mamma's Family" sketches on "The Carol Burnett Show"), Letts has created a brilliant epic about a downright determinedly dysfunctional clan, filled with compelling characters drawn in sometimes painful detail and peppered with issues that can confront all of us. The result is a rare theatrical high.

At the center of the drama - and some of the most wicked laughs in what is often a very funny, raw-language play - is the Weston matriarch, Violet. She's addicted to pills and put-downs, the latter aimed with particular relish and deadly accuracy at her three daughters, brought under the family roof again after the suicide of their alcoholic, poetry-writing father.

Violet is one of the juiciest roles to come along in years, and it couldn't make a tighter fit for Estelle Parsons. She first tackled the assignment during the Steppenwolf Theatre Company's Broadway run of "August: Osage County" (succeeding the original Violet, Deanna Dunegan), and she brings to this touring production a visceral impact all the more startling given that Parsons just turned 82.

Never mind that Violet is a woman in her mid-60s. Everything about Parsons' performance is as believable as it is affecting - the shift from slurred to all-too-precise speech; the contrast between a wild dash down the stairs and a dazed shuffling of feet once on the ground; the penetrating looks; the hand reaching out to grasp for remnants of those Violet has driven away.

Todd Rosenthal's impressive three-story set, lit with exquisite subtlety by Ann G. Wrightson, is peopled with other remarkably astute actors.

Shannon Cochran superbly limns every nuance of the spring-loaded eldest daughter, Barbara, whose husband is leaving her for the oldest, smarmiest of reasons; whose cynicism is the only real match for her mother's; and whose fate appears to be heading into "Grey Gardens" territory. (As Barbara observes, it's a good thing we can't tell the future - "Otherwise, we'd never get out of bed.")

Angelica Torn brings a telling vulnerability to Ivy, the middle daughter who faces the most unexpected roadblock to her first real chance for love. And Amy Warren, with her deliciously musical voice, captures the endearing qualities of the group-hug-seeking Karen, the youngest and far-from-wisest of the family.

Libby George gives a striking performance as Violet's sister, Mattie, who hides her own dark sin under aggressive makeup and relentless badgering of her awkward son, Little Charles (vividly portrayed by Stephen Riley Key). Paul Vincent O'Connor sometimes sounds too studied as Mattie's husband, Charlie, but he uncovers the character's reserve strength tellingly in the end.

Emily Kinney has the whole contemporary teenager thing down pat as Barbara's daughter Jean, a mix of bluster, indifference and insecurity. Jon DeVries bestows on patriarch Beverly Watson so much personality and articulates the character's literary-allusion-filled lines with such vivid growls and elongated vowels, that it's a pity he gets only the one, opening scene. The remainder of the cast proves admirable at creating three-dimensional figures in this galvanizing slice of life on the plains.

"August: Osage County" is structured by Letts with a sure, steady hand, moving full tilt (the hours pass very quickly) as it comes full circle, achieving in the process a poignancy that cuts very deep.

When Barbara, facing the reality that her marriage is over, says to her husband, "I'm never going to understand why," she could be speaking about all of the dead ends faced by the extended Weston family. And the simple, honest response her husband gives her - "Probably not" - echoes in each rumble of distant thunder heard later outside the house as Violet and Barbara confront each other one last time.

"August: Osage County" continues through Dec. 20 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW. Tickets are $25 to $80. Call 202-467-4600 or go to kennedy-center.org.

'St. Cecilia Mass' at Shriver

The Hopkins Symphony Orchestra, led by Jed Gaylin, will be joined by two area choruses for a rare performance of Gounod's "St. Cecilia Mass" at 8 p.m. Saturday on a program that also offers excerpts from operas by Gounod, Verdi and Puccini. Soloists include soprano Lori Hultgren and bass Robert Cantrell.

For more information, call 410-516-6542 or go to jhu.edu/jhso.

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