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Chicago by John Olson

August: Osage County
Cadillac Palace Theatre

Also see John's reviews of The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (abridged), Hughie and Krapp's Last Tape

August: Osage County
Estelle Parsons, Shannon Cochran
With the national company arriving in Chicago some six months into its tour, area audiences finally get another chance to see Tracy Letts's Pulitzer Prize-winning sensation that premiered here in 2007 and played to sold-out audiences in Steppenwolf's 515-seat Downstairs Theater for two months in the summer of 2007. They'll see a good cast, again under the direction of Steppenwolf's Anna D. Shapiro, but with some subtle shifts in tone that offer a different perspective from the original.

As the pill-popping, caustic matriarch Violet Weston, Estelle Parsons exposes just enough vulnerability in the matriarch to give her some humanity beneath the barbs and outright insults she throws at her family members who have gathered at the Weston home following the disappearance of her husband, Beverly. It's a more subtle and layered characterization than I remember seeing from Ms. Parsons' predecessor, Deanna Dunagan, who won a Tony for the role after the original production transferred to Broadway. Parsons still has all the bite Dunagan showed, but more defeat in Violet's quieter moments.

Similarly, Shannon Cochran as the eldest Weston daughter Barbara Fordham is softer than the original Barbara, Amy Morton. She's understandably in a great deal of pain over her situation, which includes a failed marriage, strained relationship with her teenage daughter and the disappearance of her father. Cochran is entirely convincing in these quieter moments, but has a harder time establishing the increasingly controlling side of Barbara, particularly that great moment when she declares “I'M RUNNING THINGS NOW!”—a line which ought to be on a t-shirt if it isn't already.

Violet's sister Mattie Fae Aiken is another character that's been rethought. Libby George's Mattie Fae has big hair as well as a big mouth, and lots of makeup. We see more of the faded beauty here, and with a broad southwestern accent, she verges on stereotype, but it's an appropriate stereotype. Mattie wants to believe women can be beautiful in their advanced years. We can believe she was quite the flirt in her younger years. Also retooled is the role of the youngest daughter Karen. As played by Amy Warren, who took over the role later in the Broadway run, Karen is flightier than I recall the interpretation by Mariann Mayberry. It works, though, and helps us believe that Karen would make some bad choices in men. As patriarch Beverly, Jon DeVries stretches out all his vowels to give a plains sort of pomposity to the college professor and published poet. It makes enough sense in the context of Letts's words, but gets irritating pretty quickly.

The remaining characters are interpreted similarly to the originals. Angelica Torn is effectively insecure as middle-child Ivy. DeLanna Studi has not been rethought, but fleshed out her character of the Native American housekeeper Johnna into a stronger and more interesting person. Emily Kinney catches all the right mannerisms of a young teenaged girl as Barbara's daughter Jean. The men all do capable, if unsurprising work. Karen's fiancé Steve is suitably smarmy in the hands of Laurence Lau, and Steve Key is not unduly mannered as the inept Little Charles. Paul Vincent O'Connor and Jeff Still are Charles Aiken and Bill Fordham—the quiet husbands to their louder, outspoken wives, who are the sister and daughter of Violet, after all. These are subtler roles to pull off than the flashier women's parts. Even so, O'Connor's ultimate defiance of Mattie seems to come out of nowhere, and Still's Bill lacks the texture Jeff Perry gave to the role he originated. Marcus Nelson, who is "royalty" of sorts, having been the original Ansel in the first London and New York productions of Letts's first play, Killer Joe (now in a terrific revival at Profiles Theater), is all deadpan as the country sheriff Deon.

But, though we have a solid cast on stage here, although one that even at six months into the tour seems less jelled than the Steppenwolf cast did on opening night, it's not an equivalent experience to seeing the show performed at Steppenwolf or I suspect, at the Music Box on Broadway. It may be unfair to compare this touring cast to a memory of the original—though with giant size photos of the original hanging from Steppenwolf's exterior as well as banners around the neighborhood, it's never really left. And maybe the piece suffers on second viewing because Letts's words and situations have more power when they're new and surprising. I think, though, that the main culprit is the structure of the national touring establishment and its network of 2000+ seat theaters. While I had a terrific up front press seat for the performance, the miking of the actors for a 2,200-seat house fights against the realism of the family drama. Sightlines are sometimes poor—the first eight or ten rows of the Cadillac Palace are barely raked and for the entire dinner scene I was looking at backs of heads. The truth is, while this sort of house if great for big musicals—which are presentational and in nearly perpetual motion—it's not ideal for a realistic drama. The sadder truth is there just aren't houses that would be any better available to touring productions. There was a time when Chicago had the 1400-seat Blackstone for touring dramas, but that venue (now called the Merle Reskin Theatre) now belongs to DePaul University.

As a Pulitzer Prize winner, August: Osage County deserves a national tour with a star of the stature of Ms. Parsons. (Actually, a star or two would be nice. On second viewing, it becomes apparent the play is more about Barbara's journey than Violet's.) The producers deserve the gratitude of audiences for putting this on, but it feels like the only two places to see quality live drama these days are in regional nonprofits or on Broadway, where they still have 1,000-seat theaters that provide some intimacy. With all its acclaim, and with its undeniable entertainment value, August: Osage County will be back in regional theaters soon enough. Just probably not with an actress of Estelle Parsons' stature.

August: Osage County will play the Cadillac Palace Theatre through February 14, 2010. For tickets, visit any Broadway in Chicago box office, any Ticketmaster retail location, or order online at www.BroadwayinChicago.com


Photo: Robert J. Saferstein

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-- John Olson



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