If you’ve seen American family dramas, you’ve seen quarrels at the dinner table, secrets whispered in dark corners, and pontifications from unsuspecting patriarchs – but in August, Osage County playwright Tracy Letts bid for the grandest and most outrageous rendering possible these tropics. How wonderful for the Tulsa audience that his piece is set just a few kilometers from home near Pawhuska. OK: While it takes a few scenes to get to know the prickly Weston family, we can’t help but understand their levels right away – induced discomfort.
Theater Tulsa’s production of August: Osage County combines an electrifying cast with this Pulitzer Prize-winning example of dramatic storytelling about the dysfunctional family with fun and tragic outcomes. The piece is long – 3 acts with two 10-minute pauses – but it goes fast because there is a lot to talk about the Westons. The play begins when Weston patriarch Beverly (played by Andy Axewell, who incidentally was the body double for this character in the 2013 film) hires a Cherokee housekeeper to watch over his house and his drug addicted, vicious wife. She looks so rude and vulgar when she stumbles into the interview that Beverly describes her oral cancer as a “punch line”. In the next scene, he’s gone, never to return.
Beverly’s wife Violet, the Weston matriarch, is the anchor of the show. In the Tulsa Theater she was played by Vivica Walkenbach with great passion and depth, who used every single moment of Violet’s humor and cruelty equally. The three Weston sisters each added their own intensity and pain to the family mix. It took Barbara, played by Cathy Woods, a short time to find her booth, but ended the piece with a beautifully haunting performance in the final scenes. Kristin Robert as Ivy authentically showed the fear and joy of her character, without gimmicks or inappropriate impairments of the ensemble. Leslie Long brought a bubbly, explosive energy to her portrayal of Karen that might have felt exaggerated if she hadn’t been so adorable.
The Weston family is concretized by Beverly’s brother Charlie and his wife Mattie Fae, played by Alden Anderson and Harriet Chenault. These two made an amazing couple: Chenault’s wonderful comedic timing catalyzed laughter from the moment she came on stage in Act One, and Anderson put so much emotional weight into his grand speech that he got a round of applause for it on the opening night . Her son “Little Charles” was played with heartbreaking seriousness by Fletcher Gross. Non-members of the Weston family include the Sheriff (Will Carpenter), who is eagerly investigating Beverly’s disappearance, Karen’s loathsome and loathsome fiancé Steve (Jeff Jimenez), and finally, Johnna (Lisa Hunter), the housekeeper who acts as the crowd’s assistant throughout her watches the Westons argue and mourn.
Other standout performances included real high school freshman Anabel White as Jean, who approached the challenges and complexities of her role with grace, and Kurt Harris as Barbara’s soon-to-be ex-husband Bill, whose understated portrayal of anger and emotion provided a welcome change of pace of his family’s wilder energy on stage. This impressive crew was supported by Lisa Stefanic, the mainstay of Tulsa. Richard Ellis’s great set also enhanced the production’s powerful rendition: the carefully crafted levels of depth and height provided a hyper-realistic backdrop for the piece’s stylized naturalism.
Letts’ script is a bit insistent when it explicitly points to parallels between the decline of the American experiment and the breakup of the Weston clan – the play’s themes: badly buried history, limits of social commitment, and difficulties of authentic communication are obvious enough without being explicitly mentioned to become. Beverly and Barbara’s confident monologues, however, lend epic context to what might otherwise appear to be trivial, if harrowing, cases of familial dysfunction. At one point Barbara remarks: “Dissipation is much worse than catastrophe.” Violet apparently strives for a disaster through her “truth finding” or at least some kind of climax so that everything means something. Instead, the resolution of her world is unbearably incremental – but my goodness, she makes for great theater.
Get tickets for Tulsas August Theater: Osage County Hereand plays at Tulsa PAC through February 23rd.