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Chicago by John Olson

August: Osage County
Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Also see John's review of The People's Sword in the Stone

August: Osage County
Amy Morton (standing) and Deanna Dunagan
Family members have an amazing ability to say things to each other no one else not friends, acquaintances nor co-workers - would ever dream of saying: the way they remind us of our weaknesses, exploit our sensitivities and wittingly or not, find new ways to embarrass and demean. Luckily, most family members don't have the wit and acid tongue of August: Osage County author Tracy Letts. His characters can zero in on and demolish the follies of another's actions or statements in fewer words that one might ever imagine possible, and demean with the efficiency and accuracy of a smart bomb. This play may be criticized for too many of its characters sharing his voice, but it's established that meanness is somewhat of a family trait for this clan.

Osage County's family includes the children and granddaughter of Oklahoma patriarch Beverly Weston, his wife Violet and Violet's sister Mattie Fae, brother-in-law Charlie and their adult son, "Little" Charles. The Westons' history and current situation is told in a long opening monologue in which Beverly (played by the author's father Dennis Letts) conducts a very one-sided job interview with Johnna (Kimberly Guerrero), a young Cherokee applying for a position as housekeeper/caretaker to the Westons. Living in a rural area near a college town, he's a retired university professor and acclaimed poet slipping deeper into alcoholic depression, and sharing a three-story empty nest of a home with his combative, pain-pill-addicted wife. The nature of their current relationship is telegraphed in the brief exchange in which Vi tells Beverly to "go f--- a f---ing sawhorse!" and Beverly agreeably shrugs "all right."

Their eldest and youngest daughters live out-of-state, while the middle daughter lives nearby and works at the University. After Beverly has gone missing for two days, the clan gathers to support matriarch Violet, setting the stage for no ordinary drama of family dysfunction, but a 3-1/2 hour epic compendium of every type of family emotional abuse I, for one, can imagine. This may sound tedious, but it's not because the play is so wickedly funny and continually builds momentum as the secrets and lies of the eleven family members are gradually revealed. Letts peppers the action with concise and unpredictable little cherry bombs of jokes that pop up without warning. An example: one of the characters, complaining about the house's lack of air conditioning in summer tells of the time the Weston's parakeets were dying from the heat "and these are tropical birds! "

Though most of the first two acts seem at first to be merely a collection of wickedly dark comic situations involving insensitivity among blood relatives, the play's larger themes emerge incrementally. Family traits die hard if at all. The bad traits are especially indestructible: emotional cruelty is carried through generations as surely as is a family tendency toward physical abuse. Sensitivity and a tendency toward withdrawal are also traits found in this family, and for those in whom these traits predominate, the family's trademark cruelty is especially damaging.

The 13-person cast, including an unusually large number of Steppenwolf company members to perform on stage together at once, creates vivid characters, and Director Anna D. Shapiro melds the players into a convincing whole three generations of a troubled family. She is experienced in directing the work of Tracy Letts in his acting roles as well as his plays, and clearly "gets" his voice. (As an actor as well as playwright, he's a master of the sly putdown and the tossed-off quip that might be called sarcasm if it weren't so clever.) I can't imagine there's a line spoken on stage in Osage County that doesn't sound exactly as he imagined it.

Deanna Dunagan as the addicted and mean-spirited Vi is most central to the action. In the middle of a family dinner, her pain pill high removes any ounce of self-censorship she may ever have had. She blurts out accusations and reveals secrets, proclaiming, "It's a damn fine day to tell the truth!" Dunagan's riveting performance conveys the strength, illness and ultimately the despair of a woman who's survived a long and painful life. She's matched by Steppenwolf's Amy Morton as eldest daughter Barbara. Reeling from a recent separation from spineless husband Bill (Jeff Perry, effectively fleshing out Letts' somewhat less-developed character), Barbara can throw spears as well as her mother. She describes her husband's infidelity with a younger woman as his "poking Pippi Longstocking" and tries to goad him into a fight by asking him to "At least do me the courtesy of recognizing when I'm demeaning you!" Though wearied by life and her marital woes, she shares her mother's no-nonsense grit. The moment in which she assumes control of the family, shouting to her mother "I'm in charge now!" will be long remembered, I suspect, by anyone who sees this production.

Sally Murphy plays middle daughter Ivy who's inherited her poet father's sensitivity and romanticism. Unmarried at age 44, she's especially vulnerable to her mother's criticism and it's through her reactions that we gauge the full force and destructiveness of it. A less flashy character than Vi and Barbara, and lacking their venom, Murphy's Ivy is the heart of the play, thanks to her nuanced, quietly powerful performance. Mariann Mayberry is the youngest daughter, Karen, about to be married to a guy who may not be as wonderful as he seems. Mayberry, who frequently plays the tough girl in her Steppenwolf roles, has a smaller role than the other two sisters, but creates a "not-to-be-messed-with" persona that proves she's her mother's daughter. Rick Snyder fools us as easily as he does Karen before revealing all sides of the duplicitous fiancé.

Rondi Reed is perfect as the frumpy Aunt Mattie Fae, whose cruelty is borne more from insensitivity than anger and is less deliberate and less witty than the barbs of Violet and Barb. Her nice-guy husband Charlie is played by Steppenwolf's Francis Guinan. It's a small, quiet role that doesn't give much of a chance to showcase Guinan's range until act three; that the production can enjoy such a fine actor in a smaller role is evidence of the extraordinary depth of talent in this cast. The meatiest of the male roles is the timid, underachieving Little Charles, which Ian Barford plays for comic relief, but with sensitivity. Its the sort of character Adam Sandler would love to play, and play as well as Barford. Fawn Johnstin as Barbara and Bill's troubled teenaged daughter Jean seems a little two-dimensional in her early scenes but gives an impressive performance later as we see Jean's complexity. Troy West charms as a Gary Cooperish town sheriff.

The action is played on Todd Rosenthal's stunning three-story cutout of the Weston home - large and detailed enough to allow background activity not directly related to the narrative, like Johnna's working in the kitchen or reading in her attic bedroom while the family drama plays out downstage. The many windows through the house are covered with brown wrapping paper because Violet and Beverly choose to "make no distinction between night and day." Helping to establish the piece's melancholy tone is the original music by David Singer that is played between scenes. The effective and unobtrusive lighting, sound and costume designs are by Ann G. Wrightson, Richard Woodbury and Ana Kuzmanic.

The program notes acknowledge the piece's unabashed similarities to other lengthy family dramas like Long Day's Journey Into Night and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The comparison is valid, but August: Osage County, differs in the way it seems to use its large cast of finely drawn characters to make a statement the ironic power of destruction in an institution which is supposed to be nurturing. In contrast, the above-mentioned classics use their playing time to take us deeply into the lives of just a few people, and accordingly those plays have a greater emotional power. Still, August: Osage County is rich, insightful and highly entertaining. It deserves and will certainly get future lives, but it will be difficult to assemble as great a cast as this one for any sort of eight-performance a week run (Letts says he wrote it specifically for Steppenwolf). A film or TV version could assemble a blockbuster cast, but the piece is so perfectly theatrical that a screen adaptation will be a different not necessarily worse, but different experience.

Steppenwolf's August: Osage County is one of those not-to-be missed and never-to-be repeated events that make theatergoing so urgent for people like the readers of this web site.

August: Osage County runs through August 26, 2007 at the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago. Performances are Tuesday through Sunday at 7:30 p.m. (no Sunday evening performances on August 12, 19 and 26, 2007). There are matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 3:00 p.m., and on Wednesdays August 8, 15 and 22 at 2:00 p.m. Tickets available at the box office or online at www.steppenwolf.org.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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