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Regional Reviews by David Ritchey

August: Osage County
Palace Theatre, PlayhouseSquare

Also see David's review of Bill W. and Dr. Bob

August: Osage County is great theater. Playwright Tracy Letts has created more than a Pulitzer Prize winning play (2008), he has written a play that will stand as one of the great plays of this century. The script grew out of work at the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago and is directed superbly by Anna D. Shapiro of that group.

Shapiro has an attention to detail that makes this production authentic. August in Osage County, Oklahoma, is steaming hot. Shapiro makes the oppressive heat and the plains countryside as important as any character in the script.

In times of economic frugality, even in the theater, playwrights create small cast shows. Not Letts. August: Osage County has a cast of 13, the set is a house that is three levels tall and performers work on all three levels. Todd Rosenthal (scenic designer) received a Tony Award for his wonderful, big, rambling set. This is what Shakespeare would have done if he'd had money.

This touring production is taking the theater-savvy Cleveland audiences by storm. The show plays in Cleveland's Palace Theater between April 13 -25, 2010, and then moves on to Philadelphia.

The usher warned me when I entered the theater, "This production runs about three and a half hours, but it does have two intermissions." But the time flies by as the definitive dysfunctional family fights its way through a family reunion generated by a death in the family. These folks may love each other and, yet, most shouldn't be left alone in a room with any other family member.

Violet Weston (Estelle Parsons) is the matriarch of the Weston family. (Interestingly, the program included a Weston family tree.) Violet and her husband Beverly (Jon DeVries) have three daughters: Barbara Fordham (Shannon Cochran), Ivy Weston (Angelica Torn) and Karen Weston (Amy Warren). The daughters have husbands and ex-husbands and children. Violet's sister Mattie Fae Aiken (Libby George), her husband and her son are part of the reunion.

I've not seen a funeral meal on the stage until August: Osage County. Letts has created a big family feast after the funeral that stages the best and worst of American culture. As one of the husbands stumbles through a prayer before the meal, one of the boyfriends receives a call on his cell phone and leaves the room. The prayer goes on and on. The phone call ends, the boyfriend returns to the family and freezes, hearing the prayer is still in progress. Yes, in the middle of a funeral and grief, the Weston family can make us laugh.

Occasionally, a character seems to stop the action to reflect on the condition of the family and this country. For example, consider: "The country was always pretty much a whorehouse, but at least it used to have some promise. Now it's just a [expletive] hole." Is Letts attempting to draw parallels between the United States and the dysfunctional Weston family, which is pasted together with pills, drugs and alcohol?

The acting is superb. Parsons in a local interview said this touring production was stronger than the Broadway production. Parsons is at the top of her game. She has an Academy Award, five nominations for the Tony, and was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame 2004. However, playing Violet Weston may be the pinnacle of her long, strong career.

Shannon Cochran as the eldest daughter takes the stage like an 18-wheel truck and never surrenders her control. Cochran is exquisite as the beautiful, frustrated and unhappy daughter, Barbara. She makes Letts' script sing of love, disappointment and promise.

All of the cast members are working in the same key. This may be in part because of excellent direction, a superb set as their home base and writing that will define our time.

Letts brings what is really a long, interwoven novel to the stage. Each character has a defining moment, revealing what is really at that character's core. This is a fascinating story that moves from revelation to revolt to revenge, without passing through renewal or resurrection.

August: Osage County continues in the Palace Theatre, PlayhouseSquare, Cleveland, Ohio, through April 25. For ticket information, telephone 216-241-6000.

August: Osage County
Playwright: Tracy Letts
Beverly Weston: Jon DeVries
Johnna Montevata: DeLanna Studi
Violet Weston: Estelle Parsons
Ivy Weston: Angelica Torn
Mattie Fae Aiken: Libby George
Charlie Aiken: Paul Vincent O'Connor
Bill Fordham: Jeff Still
Barbara Fordham: Shannon Cochran
Jean Fordham: Emily Kinney
Sheriff Deon Gilbeau: Marcus Nelson
Karen Weston: Amy Warren
Steve Heidebrecht: Laurence Lau
Little Charles Aiken: Steve Key
Director: Anna D. Shapiro

- David Ritchey



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