August: Osage County
Also see Bill's review of A Dram of Drummhicit
August: Osage County may have won the Pulitzer Prize for its author, Tracy Letts, but the success of the play was due in large measure to its development and subsequent production by Chicago's famed Steppenwolf Theatre. But, perhaps the truest test of a play's staying power comes when new creative teams rethink and reshape it. By that standard, the Old Globe's production, running through June 12, shows August: Osage County to deserve every bit of the acclaim that was heaped upon it.
Set in rural Indian country northwest of Tulsa, Osage County is lightly populated. In August, the sun beats down relentlessly, and while other months feature local festivals and home-grown entertainment, in August things get very quiet. It's easy to understand how folks might become depressed in August, and Beverly Weston (Robert Foxworth) has got it bad. "Life is very long," he intones, quoting from T. S. Eliot's poem, "The Hollow Men," the first of several quotations from this poem throughout the course of the three-hour play. Beverly is expounding on life, poetry, and all topics in between to Johnna Monevata (Kimberly Guerrero), a local woman of Osage Indian ancestry whom he has hired to cook, clean, and care for his wife, Violet (Lois Markle). It seems that Violet, who has been addled by addiction to prescription medications, has become too much for Beverly's care. And, indeed, once Johnna has moved in, Beverly goes off on a drive, never to return.
The Weston family gathers at the news that Beverly has gone missing, and none of them proves to be a model of rectitude. Daughter Barbara (Angela Reed) tries to set a good example, despite having a husband (Joseph Adams) who has moved out in favor of a much younger woman, and a daughter (Ronete Levenson) who has adolescent issues with drugs and nascent sexuality. Middle daughter Ivy (Carla Harting) stayed in the area when the others moved away and now longs to follow the pattern set by her sisters. Youngest daughter Karen (Kelly McAndrew) moved the furthest and came back the least, but her life has not been stable; she appears with a fiancé, the thrice-divorced Steve (Robert Maffia). Violet's sister Mattie Fae (Robin Pearson Rose) turns up, too, looking just a wee bit too smug about her sister's dilemma, bringing husband Charlie (Guy Boyd) and "special needs" son Little Charles (Haynes Thigpen) in tow, but insisting on driving back to Tulsa each evening. You see, Violet keeps the house airless and in darkness, a la Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, and it becomes a literal and figurative hothouse.
It doesn't take much watering to grow the family's dysfunction, and Mr. Letts plays out each character's story over the course of three acts. Lots of secrets find their way into sight, and there are relationship reversals worthy of Eugene O'Neill's great family drama's or Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. If played right, by the time the audience hears the final quote from "The Hollow Men,"
This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends, ...
many in the audience should not be surprised to learn that the line left out is, "Not with a bang, but a whimper."
Director Sam Gold has not completely re-thought the show (Mr. Letts is pretty specific about how it should go), but he has cast it with great care (and with good help from the Globe's regular casting agent, Samantha Barrie, CSA). There are some links to the Steppenwolf version, particularly in the form of Ms. Guerrero, who originated the part of Johnna and who plays her here with even more clarity and depth than when I saw her on Broadway. Mr. Gold's strength comes in underlining key lines and moments with his cast and drawing the subtext out of the text without overplaying his hand. This strength comes most to the fore in densely written scenes, such as ones near the beginning of the playand, here, Mr. Foxworth proved to be a very sympathetic collaborator. It was a canny move to cast such an accomplished performer in the role of Weston, and Mr. Foxworth does not disappoint (nor does he stick around for the curtain call).
The creative elements are all first-rate. David Zinn's three-story house sprawls across the smallish Globe stage, and the set's indications that we are in a packrat's Heaven or Hell (you decide) are brilliantly composed. Japhy Weideman's lighting takes advantage of the fact that the set extends on one side to the backstage wall by ignoring realism and blaring a bank of white noise (oh, sorry, meant light) to show how the sun beats down on the house during daytime. Clint Ramos' costumes capture the different locales from which family members have come, while Fitz Patton's sound design is subtle enough not to overwhelm the actors, who do not wear body mics. (I obtained an assisted listening device at the first intermission to insure that I would hear each line clearly.)
August: Osage County is a magnificent play, certainly one of the best of the as yet young 21st century, and the Old Globe's production responds in kind.
August: Osage County performs through June 12, 2011, at the Old Globe Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way, in San Diego’s Balboa Park. Tickets ($29-85) available by calling (619) 23-GLOBE [234-5623] or by visiting The Old Globe’s website.
The Old Globe presents August: Osage County, by Tracy Letts. Directed by Sam Gold with David Zinn (Scenic Design), Clint Ramos (Costume Design), Japhy Weideman (Lighting Design), Fitz Patton (Sound Design) and Diana Moser (Stage Manager).
With Joseph Adams (Bill Fordham), Guy Boyd (Charlie Aiken), Todd Cerveris (Sheriff Deon Gilbeau), Robert Foxworth (Beverly Weston), Kimberly Guerrero (Johnna Monevata), Carla Harting (Ivy Weston), Ronete Levenson (Jean Fordham), Robert Maffia (Steve Heidebrecht), Lois Markle (Violet Weston), Kelly McAndrew (Karen Weston), Angela Reed (Barbara Fordham), Robin Pearson Rose (Mattie Fae Aiken) and Haynes Thigpen (Little Charles Aiken).
Follow Bill on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SDBillEadie.