The Siegel Column

August: Osage County: By the writer of Bug?

When this theater season is over, it won't be remembered for the nineteen day stagehand strike; it will be remembered as the season that August: Osage County premiered on Broadway. This is not to say that the play or its playwright, Tracy Letts, have been instantly admitted into the theatrical pantheon – some critics are getting mighty carried away - but rather that this impressive piece of work signals the arrival of a genuinely major talent.

Frankly, nothing in the playwright's previous two Off-Broadway productions, the down –and-dirty Killer Joe and the paranoid's dream play Bug, would prepare you for the sophistication and complexity of Osage County. It is, indeed, a gigantic leap from the former to the latter. If Letts were a major league baseball player, the opposition would be demanding the umpires check his bat for cork - or his bloodstream for steroids. It is that kind of a leap. Just the same, Letts is done a disservice when his play is compared to Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night. All great plays are built, in some sense, on the shoulders of the giants. Why can't Osage County be considered on its own merits without dragging O'Neill into it? So what if both are plays about dysfunctional families that feature addicted mothers? Even if Letts has modeled his work on O'Neill's, the main take-away is that this new play has very successfully layered a modern tone and style onto a classic format.

The story is driven by the disappearance of the family's famous patriarch, a poet of some fame. Because he's gone missing, all of the family members from hither and yon have come home to deal with the crisis. Except they are the crisis ...

What may easily be missed in all the discussion about the complicated interweaving of family relationships in Osage County – and the plotting is, indeed, pretty awesome – is the writer's craft in creating so many distinct and memorable characters. One or two standouts in a show are cause to cheer, but Letts has given us an entire gallery of unforgettable people. The family matriarch, Violet Weston (Deanna Dunagan) is ferocious; this character is as tragic as she is treacherous. Her eldest daughter, Barbara (Amy Morton), is heartbreakingly funny, which is one way of saying that she is almost as tough as her mother except she tries to be good. Bill (Jeff Perry), her estranged husband, is a decent man who has failed his family, while Charlie Aiken (Francis Guinan) is as emotionally heroic as his son, Little Charles (Ian Barford) is weak and bereft. As you investigate one character after another, you begin to see that what makes them so real are their flaws. And their flaws flow down from one generation to the next, each torturing the next with its own desperate needs.

Ann D. Shapiro's direction is fluid, natural and as deliciously layered as the plot. Todd Rosenthal's set design that represents the three-story Weston house looks good if your seats are center; the farther on the side of the theater you are, the less you're going to like that set. But here's a huzzah for the dramaturg, Edward Sobel, who must have helped give shape to this gargantuan undertaking. It really is a big, sprawling family epic. It's the kind of play, people say, you never see on Broadway anymore. But now you can. And you should.

The Story in Local Story is Sarah Kate Jackson

This brief review is less about the play Local Story and more about its cast. For the record, though, the play by Kristen Palmer is an overripe tale about the effect one young woman had on her contemporaries, both when she lived in town and then when she left. Five years later, she has finally returned and it seems like every apple cart gets overturned. In this Overlap Production at The Access Theatre, directed by Susanna L. Harris, just about every character acts and reacts at a level pitched somewhere above reality. Once you accept that hyper approach to the material you can forget about the story and concentrate on some really fun performances ...

The person to keep your eye on is the obvious one: the girl at the center of the storm. She is ostentatiously named D'Lady but the name to remember is Sarah Kate Jackson. She has movie star written all over her. Better yet, she's a gifted actress. That may be less on display in this show but we saw her in this very same theater last season in the Blue Coyote comic production of The Oresteia and she was sensational in that. Given the right role, in the right piece, this girl could skyrocket.

Keira Keeley gives perhaps the most fascinating performance in Local Story because she comes across with such a compellingly ethereal quality. We look forward to finding out if she was simply playing herself or if she's as talented as she seems to be. Also impressive is Ben Scaccia as a befuddled, nerdy guy; he didn't play the clichés and was all the more memorable for his idiosyncratic performance.

The rest of the young cast is fine; the actors make the play on the stage, even if it isn't on the page.

-- Barbara and Scott Siegel

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