Wednesday, December 05, 2007

PLAY: "August: Osage County"

Photos/Joan Marcus

Tracy Letts' three-and-a-half-hour epic isn't just a comic dance around the prickly pear that is family; it's a full-blown, three-sheets-to-the-wind leap into a thorn bush. Admittedly, some of the wild taboos introduced here simply prick at the surface of things -- adultery, incest, pedophilia -- but that's because they're not the point. They're just bloody lubrication for the damaging stuff: addiction, control, and the way the world -- or at least one life -- ends.

Thankfully, Letts is a master of form. His previous play, Bug, was a claustrophobic affair between (mostly) two characters whose infectious paranoia brought an ever-present tension to the stage. August: Osage County takes more after the open O'Neill than the hidden Hitchcock, a grand, bitter, desperate glimpse of that great American idea: the Family. Todd Rosenthal's set is a menacing three-story house, one that dwarfs the characters, yet clusters them together into small and provocative spaces, and both Letts and director Anna D. Shapiro wring every ounce of tension from its distances, hazardous stairs, and darkness.

But the tension in August is a different beast than the compressed Bug: here, Letts belates the tension (thereby belaboring it, too) by making the arguments ridiculous ("Who calls them [Native Americans] that? They're no more native than me!" starts one; "Genocide always seems like a good idea at the time," ends another). The explosions are subverted into eccentric outbursts, and they quickly subside, filed away as quirks or jokes, as with Violet's self-medication: look at the wasted mother, listen to her nonsense, and then smile, grin, just bear it. In this way, Letts is able to let the action rise and fall without sacrificing his humor or his menace, and finds a rather endearing rhythm in this Oklahoma clan. And this constant, precarious fraying is the very point of the play: as one character puts it, "Dissipation is much worse than cataclysm." For the end of the world comes not with a bang, but with that whimper of mental illness, a living death in itself.

Barbara (Amy Morton), oldest daughter of the Weston family, suffers from that dissipation: she arrives at the family home in the wake of tragedy, supportive, sensitive husband and adorable daughter in tow. But it's not long before we see that Bill (Jeff Perry) is in the process of divorcing her for a young college student, and that Jean (Madeleine Martin, fresh from Californication, but just as precociously edgy) is a budding nymphomaniac who likes to smoke a certain bud. In fact, the more Barb tries to hold things together, the more she falls apart: when at last she physically wrestles control of the family away from her perfervid mother, she can't handle all the new issues that land on her plate. In fact, it's not long before Barb starts to resemble her mother: snapping at her sisters, walking around the house in a bathrobe, turning to alcohol. Things suddenly aren't quite as cut and dry as she (or we) suspected.

Nor are her sisters unaffected (in fact, there isn't a single family member who goes unscathed): middle sister Ivy (Sally Murphy) is carrying on an affair with her first cousin, Little Charles (Ian Barford), because he gives her understanding -- and no surprise, they're both stuck under domineering women. And the youngest, Karen (Mariann Mayberry) is just as desperately clinging to her love, Steve (Brian Kerwin), who, while far from a saint, can at least fulfill her perception of happiness (namely, a trip to Belize). As for their mother, Violet (Deanna Dunagan); she comes from another generation (laughingly, the Greatest Generation), and considering what physical horrors were inflicted on her as a child (think of claw hammers), the mental grief she inflicts on her children hardly registers as an injustice. The same goes for her sister, Mattie Fae (Rondi Reed), who thinks nothing of calling straight whiskey a "cocktail" or of pulling her husband, Charlie (Francis Guinan) around by the balls. Is it any wonder that Beverly (Dennis Letts), Violet's husband, vanishes?

The one complaint I can see levied against August: Osage County is that at times it is a little too loose; but honestly, that's just Letts making it easier to shake things up. It's also a complaint I don't share: the little details are just right, from an aunt's observations about her niece's breasts to a mother's moment of panic before returning home, and I wouldn't give up a single line in the interests of saving time. These scenes aren't superfluous, they're charming: it's hard to believe how stuffy their house is, but not when you've just heard the one about all the dead parakeets. Furthermore, these small, natural moments are what allow us to keep pace with the large, frantic scope of the show: it's what balances the negative attitudes of so many of these characters, what reminds us, time and time again, that it's never black and white.


Mac said...

I'm really excited! I have Wednesday tix!

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

So glad you enjoyed!