Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - June 11, 2009
The Steppenwolf Theatre Company production of August: Osage County by Tracy Letts. Directed by Anna D. Shapiro. Scenic design by Todd Rosenthal. Costume design by Ana Kuzmanic. Lighting design by Ann. G. Wrightson. Sound design by Richard Woodbury. Original music by David Singer. Fight Choreographer Chuck Coyl. Dialect Coach Cecilie O’Reilly. Cast: Phylicia Rashad, Elizabeth Ashley, Anne Berkowitz, Guy Boyd, John Cullum, Kimberly Guerrero, Brian Kerwin, Mariann Mayberry, Michael Milligan, Amy Morton, Sally Murphy, Troy West, Frank Wood.
This isn’t to say that the play, which since its December 2007 opening has received both the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the production, directed by the Tony-winning Anna D. Shapiro, don’t still exercise significant flair - they do - but the nature of their piercing pleasures has drastically changed. Through recasting of some crucial roles, with performers such as Phylicia Rashad and Elizabeth Ashley, and the softening of the remaining original cast members, a play that was a smoky pint of Guinness has morphed into a tumbler of sparkling ginger ale.
What’s missing these days isn’t so much energy or precision as the clenching, caustic rage that once made the Oklahoman Westons so deliciously brutal. Letts’s play, for its uncommon size and scope (it runs nearly three and a half hours and counts 13 characters, each vital), has always been barely half a step removed from hand-wringing sitcom triumphalism. This gloriously inelegant rant against the oppression of and within a prototypical Red State thrives on smartly startling outrages - things like addiction, adultery, pedophilia, and of course incest - to fuel its scathing indictment of the Midwest’s corrosivity.
When August: Osage County opened, it molded these clichés into a tangible, juicy show just tight enough to withstand the nearly parodic assault on the Westons by every imaginable social taboo. This was because its troupe of performers, like the rest of the production direct from the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, had insulated their portrayals against the fake emotionalism that would reveal Letts’s script as the largely artificial collection of woes it is. Now, most everyone has given in to baser pursuits, and become more “real” than real. This is fuel enough to propel the play, but not to prevent it from becoming nothing more than the shallow, gasp- and whisper-inducing stage page-turner it always teetered on the edge of being.
You may be tempted to pin this change in direction on casting Rashad as the Weston matriarch, Violet, and in some ways you’d be correct. True, Rashad lacks the innate appearance of callousness that Deanna Dunagan (who created Violet and won a Tony for her) and Estelle Parsons (who replaced Dunagan and will soon tour in the show) so freely wield. But she’s created powerful visions of maternity in roles as varied as Lena Younger in A Raisin in the Sun, Aunt Ester in Gem of the Ocean, and the title character in the musical Bernarda Alba, so in many ways her casting seems wise.
That Violet, the play’s unabashed and unstoppable truth teller, behaves this way, may not be an intentional choice; Rashad is doing nothing specifically wrong. But as with her most recent Broadway appearance as Big Mama in last year’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, her technically valid approach falters in the greater context of the production in which it appears. Rashad’s approach isn’t so much wrong as incompatible with the other actors’ bare-metal characterizations.
But there are problems even there. Ashley has turned Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (a role for which Rondi Reed won a Tony) into a self-consciously actory glam girl who’s less trapped by her life than she is captivated by her own personal drama, a glittery rather than a gritty choice. Amy Morton isn’t as galvanizing as Barbara now as she was when she first started: She’s fallen into a rut of reactive radioactivity, whereas one of the chief joys of the original production was watching Barbara develop her strength under the fire of Violet’s implosion. Mattie Fae and Barbara must outline both Violet and the feminine core that drives the play as well as the Weston brood, but now they come across as too indecisive.
Everyone else is a mixed bag. The holdovers (notably Sally Murphy and Mariann Mayberry as Barbara’s trouble-chased sisters) have generally retained their basic strengths, but lost sight of some of the details; the newcomers, such as Frank Wood as Barbara’s cheating husband and Michael Milligan as Mattie Fae’s son, do respectable if rather surface-level work. Only John Cullum, in the essentially ornamental role as the father who kick-starts the Westons’ collapse, seems a complete success: weary, thoughtful, talkative, and yet oddly riveting - the play in a nutshell.
Given his limited participation in the action, there’s not much Cullum can do to stem the tide of entertainment-for-entertainment’s-sake that threatens August: Osage County’s every scene like a flash flood. Whether that would be wise, even if it were within his power, is another issue: More plays need the devotion to theatrical enjoyment that this one has always possessed. But this production is no longer proving as conclusively as it used to that all that fun is more important or fulfilling than witnessing the disintegration of both a family and America itself.