Also see John's review of The Light in the Piazza
Playwright Tracy Letts moved to Chicago at the age of 20, and worked for the next 11 years at the Steppenwolf Theater Company. He is still an active member of Steppenwolf today, and was also a founding member of Bang Bang Spontaneous Theatre. Letts claims his work is inspired by the plays of Tennessee Williams and the novels of William Faulkner and Jim Thompson. His mother, the best-selling author Billie Letts ("Where The Heart Is," "Shoot The Moon," etc.) has said of his writing: "I try to be upbeat and funny. Everybody in Tracy's stories gets naked or dead." In addition to August: Osage County Letts' other works include Killer Joe, Bug, Man from Nebraska (a 2004 Pulitzer Prize finalist), and Superior Donuts (currently appearing at the nearby Gablestage Theatre).
With a running time of 3 hours and 20 minutes, August: Osage County tells the tale of the Weston family of Pawhuska, Oklahoma. On the rural family homestead, with its window-shades pulled tight to keep out the light, the air is thick and hot from both the weather and the familial tension. Husband and wife, Beverly and Violet Weston (Dennis Creaghan and Annette Miller) exist in a tortuous marital relationship held together by certain mutual agreements. The most notable of these agreements is that Violet allows Beverly his raging alcoholism, while he allows her to continue her endless prescriptive drug addiction (percodan, percocet, vicodin, valium, etc.). So severe is her abuse of these drugs, added to her drinking alcohol, that at times she rambles without making sense, reacts inappropriately to situations, has loss of motor skills and slurred speech. In shortshe's crazy. In the beginning of the play, Beverly, who is a retired teacher and poet, speaks wistfully of T. S Elliot placing his own unstable wife Vivienne in a mental hospital. In Beverly's words, there he left her, as he got on with the productivity of his own life. Perhaps Beverly searches for the strength to leave his wife or the strength to stay with her in each new bottle of whiskey. Whatever he is searching for, shortly after he hires a Native-American housekeeper named Johnna (Cecilia Isis Torres) to tend to him and his wife, he disappears.
Beverly and Violet's three daughters, Barbara, Ivy and Karen (Laura Turnbull, Kathryn Lee Johnston and Amy McKenna) arrive on the scene, as well as Violet's sister Mattie Fae Aiken (Barbara Bradshaw), with her husband and son (Peter Haig and Erik Fabregat). When the Sherriff (Gregg Weiner), who is Barbara's high school sweetheart, arrives with tragic news, the family begins a dysfunction dance of adjustment. There are pointed questions about the future of certain family members as well as the dark details of their pasts. A telling conversation between the three sisters raises the question of whether one automatically feels affection for one's family members or whether we are merely randomly genetically linked. August: Osage County is about people struggling with moral and spiritual questions, and the cost of survival on one's own terms.
On a side note: a bit of research on T.S Eliot, who is heavily referenced by Beverly at the start of the play, reveals that Eliot was good friends with poet Conrad Aiken. Without revealing too much about August: Osage County's plot points, one can not help but notice that playwright Letts uses the surname Aiken in this play, and wonder if the use is intentionally a symbolic comparison between the story of the character of Beverly and the real life father of of Conrad Aiken.
The remarkable set for this production of August: Osage County by Sean McClelland seems nearly impossible. He has fit three detailed, functional stories of a house on the Actors Playhouse stage, with clear views from nearly every angle. Lighting and sound accommodate the set and the large cast flawlessly. There are no problematic lighting spots or inaudible moments anywhere in the show. To be frank, the length of the play, despite good pacing, is ponderous because of its dark subject matter. The biting dialogue and intense moments of character study are memorable and intense.
Annette Miller is brilliant as Violetmercurially venomous and vulnerable. Watching her slip in and out of lucidity is fascinating, though following her logic is futile. Miller is a gifted actress who has captured the image of a woman teetering on the edge madness. (We are indeed told that Violet has taken so many drugs that a doctor suspects she may be brain damaged). It is not the madness that is frightening, but the fact that, through seeming oblivion, she misses nothing.
Those roles smaller in volume of dialogue still provide this cast of actors a chance to establish great character moments. The self-absorbed and frivolous Karen is amusing played by Amy McKenna. Her morally degenerate fiancé Steve seems almost too well played by actor Stephen G. Anthony. Barbara Bradshaw finds multiple layers in the character Mattie Fae. One moment she is fussy and nagging, another moment nurturing and supportive. Laura Turnbull conquers the unenviable role of Barbara as she rides the biggest emotional roller coaster in the show. Turnbull is immersed in this character to the point that one can lose sight of the fact that she is acting a script and not in the reality of the moment. Being an actress that can make an audience forget they are watching a show and are instead witnessing someone else's moment is an incredible thing. For moments like this created by Turnbull and Miller, August: Osage County is worth the 3 hours and 20 minutes.
August: Osage County will be appearing through April 3, 2011, at the Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables. Actors' Playhouse is a Florida Presenting Cultural Organization and a nonprofit professional regional theatre hiring local and non-local Equity and non-Equity actors. In addition to its Mainstage season, Actors' Playhouse produces a year-round five-show season of Musical Theatre for Young Audiences, a National Children's Theatre Festival, and a Theatre Conservatory and Summer Camp Program. Actors' Playhouse is located at 280 Miracle Mile in Coral Gables, Florida. Performances are usually Wednesday - Saturday at 8:00 PM, and Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 PM. Information and tickets may be obtained by contacting the theater at their box office at (305) 444-9293, or online at www.actorsplayhouse.org.
*Designates a member of Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.