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Regional Reviews by Gil Benbrook

August: Osage County
Mesa Encore Theatre

Also see Gil's reviews of Tribes and Ain't Misbehavin'


Christi Sweeney,Shari Watts and Brenda Jean Foley
In 2008 August: Osage County won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play. It is the story of one of the most highly dysfunctional families you'll ever meet as well as a terrific black comedy with scenes of intense drama. The show is currently receiving an impressive production, with a very capable cast, from the Mesa Encore Theatre that runs through February 9th.

Written by Tracy Letts, and taking place over a few weeks during the month of August in Osage County, Oklahoma, the play follows the Weston family, including matriarch Violet and her three daughters, as they come to terms with the disappearance of their father Beverly, Violet's husband. With plenty of verbal and physical abuse as well as a heavy dose of drug and alcohol addiction, August: Osage County is an evening of family fireworks that culminates in several explosive encounters between Violet and her oldest daughter, Barbara. Full of strong yet emotionally injured women, Letts' play is also packed with plenty of family secrets, and the way Letts reveals the secrets over the course of the three hour, three act play is quite effective.

Completely taking place inside Violet's three-story house, Letts has taken just about every soap opera cliffhanger and plot twist and crafted them into an emotional roller coaster of a show. Letts, a gifted actor who also won the Tony Award for his portrayal of George in the 2012 Broadway revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, has written an actor's dream play with plenty of meaty roles, especially Violet, daughters Barbara and Ivy, and Violet's sister Mattie Fae. Even the smaller parts contribute to the overall impact of the piece and give each character, and each actor playing them, plenty to latch on to.

"She takes pills and I drink" is how Beverly explains the matter of fact relationship he has with his wife early in the play. And over the next three hours we will see Violet consume handfuls of pills to help with the pain of the mouth cancer she is dealing with as well as the overall pain and disappointment of her life. Barbara hasn't visited for years, after moving away for a better job opportunity for her husband; middle daughter Ivy, while she still lives in town, is mousey and weak; and youngest daughter Karen, who also hasn't been back home in years, is self-centered and lives in Miami with her fiancÚ, who has been married three times before. Violet feels disappointment with all of her children. Her sister Mattie Fae, to whom Violet is very close, has the same disappointment with her son Charles.

Once the family returns home to deal with Beverly's disappearance, the house becomes a mad house of demeaning statements and pure rage. While Violet doesn't see anything wrong with "truth telling," as she puts it, the combination of pills and alcohol make the truth a painful pill to swallow. The family secrets, hidden for years, and the events of Beverly's disappearance culminate in two explosive dining room scenes.

Director Phillip Fazio has cast an excellent group of actors, who easily and realistically portray this large dysfunctional family. Shari Watts is delivering a superb performance as Violet. It is a difficult character to play, half of the time high on pills, the other time depressed on downers, but Watts has no difficulty in establishing the turbulent effect the drugs have on Violet. She also has the walk of someone high on pills down perfectly—always a little shaky, and hardly ever moving in a straight line. Watts also has no problem in expertly slinging insults at those she blames for her own misery without crossing the fine line from drama to comedy that some of the more shocking insults could easily force.

Christi Sweeney as Barbara is just as good. Barbara is the emotional center of the play, the one to whom most of the secrets are revealed, so, like the character of Violet, she also has to deal with a roller coaster of emotions, but based on information she learns and not the effect of pills. Sweeney does a perfect job in portraying this damaged woman who is coming to grips with the reality of her family, even if that means she might just be turning into her mother more than she would like. The scenes that Watts and Sweeney have together, especially the two dining room scenes when Violet is in rare form, are nicely directed, with the two women showing a perfect control and understanding of their characters.

Brenda Jean Foley is middle daughter Ivy, the shy, introverted woman who is constantly being told by her mother that everything she does is wrong, from the clothes she wears to the men she dated. But Ivy has a happy secret of her own, and the joy and excitement that Foley exhibits when she reveals her secret, and the ultimate truth about it, is heartbreaking. Janis Webb as Violet's sister Mattie Fae is the strong southern woman who belittles her husband and never has anything nice to say about her son. Webb manages to make Mattie Fae into a woman we don't hate, which isn't easy to do. And when Mattie Fae is confronted about her behavior, Webb does an excellent job in showing only through her facial expressions that she just might be realizing how painful her behavior has been. Webb and Jeffrey Middleton as her husband Charlie are excellent as a couple, realistically acting like two people who have been together for almost forty years. Middleton, who also provided the nice costume designs for the play, has a soft touch to his delivery of Charlie's dialogue, which is a nice contrast to the fireworks around him.

Natalie Cadieux is great as youngest daughter Karen, showing the self-centered woman who is still holding on to a dream from when she was much younger—of finding happiness. Cadieux doesn't enter the play until the second act and at first comes on very strong, speaking her lines very fast. I know she's trying to show the excitement of her character, but it seems an odd choice to deliver the lines in this way as it doesn't quite gel with the rest of the actors' natural delivery. However, after her first scene she is fine.

Walt Pedano and Rebecca Wierman are Barbara's husband and teenage daughter Bill and Jean, and both are faultless in their performances. Pedano shows the patience that Bill has, especially in trying to manage everything that goes on during their visit. His dealings with Violet are perfectly delivered in the way a man would deal with his addict mother-in-law. Wierman, who also contributed the hair and make-up design for the show, does nice work as Jean, getting across the lost girl who is dealing with growing up in an uncertain environment. My only quibble is that Wierman doesn't quite look young enough to be playing a 14 year old.

Timothy Pittman is Karen's fiancÚ and doesn't miss a beat in portraying the sleazy man who seems to be more interested in Jean than Karen. The scenes he has with Wierman go from sweet to creepy but in a realistic way, a testament to both Pittman and Wierman's abilities. Todd Michael Isaac as Mattie Fae and Charlie's son "Little" Charles, does a fine job of showing the someone who, like Ivy, is constantly being belittled by his mother.

As the outsiders to the family, Alexia Coppell as Johnna, the Cheyenne woman whom Beverly has hired to care for Violet, and Jeff Carpenter as the town Sheriff, are simply observers to the action of the Weston family. Coppell is lovely in displaying someone who, desperate for the job, never comments on the out of control situations happening around her, always sitting in the background or up in her third story bedroom, hearing and seeing what is going on, but not making a sound about it. Carpenter, who was great in the Desert Stages' production of Driving Miss Daisy in December, is equally good here in the small part of the Sheriff who knew Barbara from high school.

Fazio's direction is excellent. His pacing for the play is even, never rushing with the explosive scenes but naturally evolving from quiet to outright rage. He does a nice job in offsetting the more emotional outburst sections with several tender moments. He efficiently stages the action on all three levels of the house set by Matthew Crosby, which, while somewhat simple, is still effective.

"Thank God we can't tell the future. We'd never get out of bed" is a line that Barbara delivers and it perfectly sums up the reaction that any member of the Weston family would have if they knew what was in their future. And, while the play is initially a story about escape, escape from your parents, escape from Oklahoma, escape through drugs and alcohol, it is also about how strained or unhealthy relationships with our parents eventually impact everyone, even those who aren't related to, yet come in contact with, the family. Letts has written a masterpiece of a play that will be remembered for years to come as an American classic in the vein of Long Day's Journey Into Night. Even with a long running time, the way he continually delivers new information means there is so much that happens in August: Osage County that the play never tires or becomes boring.

August: Osage County is a riveting black comedy and the Mesa Encore Theatre production has a perfect cast with great direction and is recommended for anyone who prefers an intense drama that is both funny and sad. While I don't think anyone would actually want to be a member of the Weston household, visiting them for a few hours is highly recommended.

August: Osage County runs at Mesa Encore Theatre through February 9th with performances at the Mesa Arts Center at 1 East Main Street in Mesa. Tickets can be ordered by calling (480) 644-6500 or at mesaencoretheatre.com.

Director: Phillip Fazio
Producers: Debra Jo Davey & Becky Martinez
Stage Manager: Wendy Smith
Set Design: Brett Aiken
Scenic Artist: Matthew Crosby
Props Design: Wendy Smith, Debra Jo Davey, Becky Martinez & Pam Pershing
Costume Design: Jeffrey Middleton
Lighting Design: Chris Peterson
Light Board Operator: Wendy Smith
Sound Design: Brett Aiken
Sound Board Operator: Chris Chavez
Hair & Make-Up Design: Rebecca Wierman
Stage Crew: Jason K. Walz, Charles Blessing
Publicity: Kiki Plesha
Photography: Sarah Rodgers
Program: Jeffrey J. Davey

Cast:
Beverly Weston: Paul Schwartz
Violet Weston: Shari Watts
Barbara Fordham: Christi Sweeney
Bill Fordham: Walt Pedano
Jean Fordham: Rebecca Wierman
Ivy Weston: Brenda Jean Foley
Karen Weston: Natalie Cadieux
Mattie Fae Aiken: Janis Webb
Charlie Aiken: Jeffrey Middleton
Charles Aiken: Todd Michael Isaac
Steve Huberbrecht: Timothy Pittman
Johnna Monevata: Alexia Coppell
Sheriff Deon Gilbeau: Jeff Carpenter


Photo: Sarah Rodgers / Mesa Encore Theatre

--Gil Benbrook


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix



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