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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

An Uneven August: Osage County at Balagan Theatre

A Separate Peace
Teri Lazzara, Caitlin Frances, and Kate Jaeger
When one hears as much about a play as I had heard about August: Osage County by Tracy Letts (whose original stage play Killer Joe fractured me) you worry about overkill. And I'm afraid that, good as it is, I didn't feel it was quite the superlative achievement in playwriting that its critical kudos, Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning status led me to expect. I must confess, after a season of attending winning musicals at Balagan, I felt that the company's return to straight play production was just a bit off as well. Director Shawn Belyea seems to have instilled the idea in several key cast members that they should go for the kind of broad characterizations more suited to the clans represented in Steel Magnolias, Crimes of the Heart or even TV's "Mama's Family," which works against the starker, more realistic play Letts has written. The result is an evening of theatre both rewarding and disappointing and a good half hour too long to boot.

Nominally set in modern day Oklahoma, but for all intent and purpose set in that dramatists fantasyland of Dysfunction Junction, the entire action takes place in the Weston family home. Once-renowned poet Beverly Weston hires Johnna, a Native-American housekeeper/caregiver for his wife Violet, a fierce and indomitable woman suffering from mouth cancer and addicted to painkillers. After Beverly disappears for five days, Violet has been joined by her sister Mattie Fae, brother-in-law Charles, Violet's eldest daughter Barbara, her estranged husband Bill, and 14-year-old daughter Jean, along with Barbara's sister Ivy, the only Weston sibling still living near her parents. News comes from the sherriff, an old beau of Barbara's, that Beverly has drowned, a likely suicide. Following Beverly's funeral, youngest sister Karen and her fiancÚ Steve return to the house, joined shortly by Mattie Fae and Charles' sad-sack son Little Charles. Incestuous relationships, sibling rivalries, drug and alcohol abuse, and pedophilia are all as much on the table as the chicken dinner Johnna has prepared, with matriarch Violet center stage as all the family dramas unfold and unravel.

Shellie Shulkin pours her heart and soul into the demanding role of Violet, in a fearless performance depicting a woman who sees and can manipulate all those around her, despite her battles with cancer and drug addiction. Shulkin somehow manages to keep this damaged, monstrous woman sympathetic despite everything she has done to her loved ones. Charles Leggett is impressive and vivid in the brief stage time he has as patriarch Beverly. Caitlin Frances is beautifully low-key and raw as the dutiful home-girl daughter Ivy, who has fallen for her cousin Charlie, played with an unmannered quirkiness, warmth and likability by David Goldstein. Lisa Viertel chews a good bit of scenery as tough Aunt Mattie Fae, but redeems herself in her act three scenes where the character must deal with some awful secrets, and is told off by her warm-hearted husband Charles, played with great heart, warmth and humor by John Q. Smith, who is quickly becoming one of Seattle's best character actors. Kate Jaeger as Karen embraces the comic aspects of her role without overstating them, and creates genuine pathos after her character's betrayal by fiancÚ Steve, memorably enacted as a squirm-inducing predatory cad by Gordon Carpenter. Teri Lazzara as Barbara holds her own admirably with Shulkin in their mother/daughter rows, but pushes for laughs a bit too hard elsewhere. Chris Ensweiler creates a grounded and centered persona for Bill, and Devynne Gannon is ideal as Barbara and Bill's Lolita-ish daughter Jean. Ashley Bagwell does fine by the role of the Sherriff Gilbeau, and Jordi Montes manages to bring the stoic Johnna to life when the script finally allows her to.

Director Belyea could up the pacing of the play 's static first act considerably. One suspects that the upcoming film adaptation will excise a good bit of meandering first act exposition to make for a running time well under the play's (three and a quarter hours with two intermissions).

Ahren Buhmann's scenic design sufficiently capture the sprawling, rather unkempt interiors of the Weston home, but the playing area of the dining table, given the pivotal scene that takes place at it, could have been rethought. Sarah Nietfeld's costumes are apt, and Michael Owcharuk's original score/sound design underscores the text well. Andy Dopieralski's video projections are too dim, and seem an unnecessary artistic embellishment.

August: Osage County runs through April 27 at the Erickson Theatre on Capitol Hill (1524 Harvard Avenue). Tickets start at $20 and are on sale at (206) 329-1050 or www.balagantheatre.org.


Photo: Truman Buffett Photography



- David Edward Hughes



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