Theater Review: “August: Osage County”
Steve Perigard and Katie McCall in “August: Osage County.” Photo by Jay Paul.
The highly anticipated, tumultuous, and Pulitzer-Prize winning “August: Osage County” arrives in Richmond in an excitingly shrill production that’s as sizzling as the roasting heat of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, the homestead of the deranged Weston Family.
Throwing plates of catfish across the dining room and making vulgar references to their mother’s vagina is the Weston daughters’ way of saying, “I love you, Mommy Dearest,” in this tragicomedy by Tracy Letts.
Indeed, Cadence Theatre Company in partnership with Barksdale’s Theatre Gym constructs a madhouse, but events become creepier. The family’s matriarch, Violet Weston (Melanie Richards), pops Xanax as frequently as she smokes a pack of Winstons, first cousins kiss without any concerns related to inbreeding, and in the sinister corners of the dining room a festering pedophilia erupts across scenic designer Phil Hayes’ formidable two story country house, tightly packed into the humid intimacy of Barksdale’s Theatre Gym.
Notice how all the windows are covered up and the furniture on stage is weathered, suggesting that the house’s stagnant, drab décor mimics the family’s social withdrawal and moral ossification. Lighting designer Matthew Landwehr doesn’t allow natural nightlight to shine into the house until Act III when a beautiful, multicolored stained glass window, overlooking the staircase, is finally uncovered. (The performance runs three acts over three friskily paced hours.)
Charles Isherwood, the eloquent, prickly junior theater critic of “The New York Times,” famously branded the play, which premiered in Chicago at the estimable Steppenwolf Theatre before heading to Broadway, as “no asterisks and without qualifications, the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years,” hurling Letts into the prestigious ranks of Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, and Tennessee Williams.
Abrasively, this drama illustrates the superficial kinship of family life, tirelessly directed by Keri Wormald. Indeed, Act III howls provocatively and bites humorously owing primarily to the out-of-this-world, emotionally powerful acting abilities of Melissa Johnston Price, who plays Violet’s eldest daughter, Barbara Fordham. However, not all the performers have mastered the rhythmic beat of Letts’ acerbic, naturally humorous language in Act I and Act II, some accelerating through scenes as if too concerned about keeping the play within its three hours.
So, what’s the reason for all this family fun? Beverly Weston (John Hagadorn speaks with a poetic tenor), the clan’s award-winning literary patriarch, has gone missing again. Beverly says to Johnna Monevata (a bewildered Carolyn Meade), “My wife takes pills and I drink” because marriage is a “cruel covenant.” Uh-oh, this time around, however, his disappearance seems dire.
A herd of Violet’s family members, including her sister Mattie Fae Aiken (Jody Smith Strickler is a honky tonk delight) and her husband Charlie Aiken (a carnivorously funny Gordon Bass), daughters Barbara and Karen (Grey Garrett who adorably folds napkins inside out) with their partners Bill Fordham (a strong David Bridgewater) and Steve Heidebrecht (a sensually creepy Bill Brock), nephew Little Charles Aiken (a sweet and tender Steve Perigard), and granddaughter Jean Fordham (a ripened Karen Stanley), begrudgingly come home.
Alas, there’s poor Ivy (Katie McCall), the middle child, still living with her cranky parents. The butt of many lesbian jokes, McCall’s bashful but eager to love, even if it’s a bit against taboo.
Richards’ Violet doesn’t greet them with open arms, but with open insults like a shotgun fired on the open plains. Admittedly, she can overly emotionalize Violet’s viciousness throughout the performance, creating a matriarch who’s gnawingly extra doped up on Darvocet. But she becomes chillingly cathartic, muttering “and then you’re here” repeatedly, in a delusional spinning dance downstairs at the end of Act I, and then softly accessible in a rare, quiet moment among her pills and husband’s books upstairs at the start of Act II.
“Everyone’s got this idea I’m mean, all of a sudden,” Violet retorts. You’ll need to find out. But as layers of her family drift away, Richards’ blue, almond shaped eyes remain forever piercing.
“August: Osage County” runs through March 10 at Barksdale’s Theatre Gym at the Theatre IV Complex. For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit http://www.barksdalerichmond.org/
Matthew Miller is the former arts editor and chief theater critic for GAYRVA.com. A Chicago native, he holds a B.A. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He currently resides in Richmond, VA and is a member of the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Matthew Miller on Twitter twitter.com/matthewkmiller
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