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Regional Reviews by Matthew Small

August: Osage County
Colonial Theatre

August: Osage County
Estelle Parsons
You must see August: Osage County. This Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner, starring Estelle Parsons, wraps up a first national tour at Boston's Colonial Theatre on Sunday, May 9. Since taking Broadway by storm in 2008, the modern masterpiece by Chicago playwright Tracy Letts remains one of the finest plays to inhabit the American stage.

I returned to the theater this week to experience August: Osage County after viewing it twice during the initial Broadway run. I was first mesmerized by the remarkable original cast from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company and again with an ensemble led by octogenarian Estelle Parsons, who recreates her Broadway performance for the tour. A native of Massachusetts, Parsons is one of America's rare, talented life-long performers of the stage and screen. In later years, she spent many seasons as Roseanne's prickly mother on TV, but her entire career is storied and lush. This week's mesmerizing performance proves how comfortable she is on the stage.

Director Anna Shapiro sets a surprising, unstoppable pace within the dark, lonely Oklahoman house where Beverley and Violet Weston once raised their three daughters. When the patriarch disappears, everyone returns to find that things are worse than they imagined with their mother (Parsons). Violet's pill addiction fuels a biting wit, an ongoing barrage of "truths" she compulsively lays at the feet of her visitors. Nothing gets past Violet, she reminds them.

As we witness the gut-wrenching unraveling of a decades-old tangled web of Weston family secrets, deceptions and yearnings, an unexpected event happens. We laugh. And for a time, we can't stop laughing. For, as my mother always says (as probably her mother did before that), we might as well laugh as cry. Playwright Letts' brisk—and occasionally slurred—dialogue teems with familiarity. Though we might not have experienced this particular situation or that tragic setback, almost all of us can relate to the messiness of families, even the best-behaved ones.

The most delightful and horrible scenes occur around the family dinner table. The power struggles between Violet and her daughters, led with vigor by the eldest, Barbara (Shannon Cochran), become an intensifying storm that threatens them all. Aunt Mattie Fae (Libby George) and Uncle Charlie (Paul Vincent O'Connor) are here to comfort the Westons, but their own issues lie beneath the surface, ready to seep through the crack at any moment. George and O'Connor's fantastic chemistry brings wonderful warmth to their complex characters who seem so simple on the surface at first glance.

Observing disintegration of this family throughout the play, the newly hired Native American housekeeper Johnna (Delanna Studi) relies on the Westons for work in the tough local economy. With the addition of Johnna, Letts pays tribute to the helplessness that our country's original inhabitants must feel as they witness the current caretakers pillage, plunder and destroy America's finite natural resources, wounding our collective soul. And so it is for this microcosm, the Westons.

The design elements perform in harmony alongside a solid ensemble of actors who comprise this discordant family. The haunting three-story house is designed by Todd Rosenthal, dimly lit by Ann G. Wrightson and accented with a somber, jazzy score by David Singer. Ana Kuzmanic's appropriately lusterless costumes help bring these very real characters to life.

If you have been waiting for someone to recommend a good play, this is the one. The savvy theatergoers I know have seen returned to the show multiple times. Even my close friend who is less than enthusiastic about theater couldn't stop talking about how much she enjoyed August: Osage County. There's a good chance you can find half-price tickets at the BosTix booths this weekend, but make sure to check daily listings under "Today's Shows" at www.bostix.org before you make the trek to Faneuil Hall or Copley Square.

Don't miss your chance to see August: Osage County with Estelle Parsons for the last time. This national tour closes Sunday at the Colonial Theatre, 106 Boylston St. For tickets and information, visit the box office, call (800) 982-2787, or purchase online at www.augustonbroadway.com.


Photo: Joan Marcus

Matthew Small

Follow Matthew on Twitter: www.twitter.com/msmallreviews.



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