Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

Regional Reviews

August: Osage County at the Cell Theater
Fusion Theatre Company

Also see Lynn's review of Picasso at the Lapin Agile

 Nicole Gramlich and Laurie Thomas 
The Fusion Theatre Company blasts open Albuquerque's brilliant fall theater season with a regional premiere of August: Osage County by Tracy Letts. This award-winning drama merits all the critical superlatives it has reaped. After its June 2007 premiere at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, it opened with the original cast on Broadway December 2007 and ran 648 performances. In 2008 it won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the Tony Award for Best Play. In his New York Times review, Christopher Isherwood called it "the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years."

Set in the dead center of America, in August 2007, in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, August: Osage County presents the disintegration of the Weston family as a microcosm of the American dream gone horribly awry. In epic detail, the crafty sharp-tongued Westons and those related to them drag forth typical horrors of now normal dysfunctional American families: alcoholism, drug addiction, infidelity, divorce, incest, child abuse and molestation.

Patriarch Beverly Weston, once famous poet and now alcoholic, presents the play's prologue, then disappears, creating the central family crisis. Gregory Wagrowski plays the departing father as a congenial philosopher, witty and self-satisfied in his cups as he quotes cynical poetry to Johnna, a young Cheyenne woman he's hiring to care for the house and his wife. Nicole Gramlich's calm physical presence as Johnna—alert, capable, faintly smiling—holds everyone together from start to finish as catastrophes unravel. She represents the native people and land, forever battered by the European invasion, but surviving by holding firm to ancient traditions.

Like a wild fire destroying all life in its path, drug-addled but totally aware Violet Weston creates the central chaos. She lashes out at everyone, especially her three daughters who converge on the family home to console their mother and mourn their father. Laurie Thomas as Violet stabs at the heart of other characters' darkest secrets and wounds. She then spins stunningly into lucidity to reveal flashes of compassion for her sister and daughters amidst her vitriol. We are mesmerized by her mercurial display of hysterics—channeling Medea to Mary Tyrone.

Middle daughter Ivy, who stayed close to home, bears the brunt of her mother's venom. Bridget Kelly's Ivy grows from meek and mousy in early scenes into enough strength to resist Violet and make plans for her future. Ivy's cousin "Little Charles," played by Aaron Worley, also grows from his whimpering first appearance to resisting his hateful mother, Violet's older sister Mattie Fae.

Joanne Camp's brilliantly ridiculous Mattie Fae provides much-needed comic energy. She primps and flounces, bragging about still being sexy, and expands to reveal a more complicated personality under her superficial self-righteous sarcasm toward husband Charles, played with resilient gusto by William Sterchi, and the despised younger Charles.

Only eldest daughter Barbara battles her mother directly. Grimly determined to win against Violet, she strides into the dreaded family home with her philandering husband Bill and their 14-year-old daughter Jean. Jacqueline Reid exhibits Barbara's explosive rage with a sharp tongue and constant exhausting activity—snapping sheets onto the day bed while screaming at Bill and plopping silver and china on the dining table while resisting her youngest sister's self-indulgent monologue.

Bruce Holmes plays Violet's unrepentant husband Bill, an English professor having an affair with a student, but seeking redemption through his compassion for his wife and daughter at their time of crisis. His genuine admiration for Beverly as poet provides a wider view of the Westons in better days. Lauren Myers captures the capricious "whatever" attitude of their pot-smoking daughter Jean, whose ambivalence toward her parents and grandparents reveals the futility of hope for the future.

Wendy Scott portrays youngest sister Karen as a needy narcissistic loser who's always been lonely, unhappy and unloved. Compared to her sharper sisters, Karen lives in a bubble of denial. She arrives with her dream fiancé Steve, who quickly shows another side. Paul Blott's Steve is appropriately slimy.

For Albuquerque's professional Fusion Theatre Company, Gil Lazier has directed a brilliant fast-paced production with crisp scene transitions and a cast of strong Equity actors. The action moves so rapidly for more than three hours, we can hardly draw a breath: from Beverly's disappearance, through Violet's slurred mania, Barbara's attempts to wrest control from her mother and punish her husband, Ivy and Charles's secret, Steve's despicable actions, the sisters' confessions to one another, Violet's stories of her abusive parents, to everyone abandoning Violet in the end.

On a small, flat stage, with audience knee to knee with the actors, Richard K. Hogle has spread the original multi-level set horizontally with playing areas going light and dark as the action surges forward. Not only is the fourth wall preserved in this slice of American realism, but Violet's sealed-up house with its anachronistic '70s furnishings captures a stagnant stifling claustrophobia.

If Tony Kushner's Angels in America captured a fleeting hope for transcendence in the 1990s beyond disease and decay "toward the millennium," Tracy Letts' August: Osage County ushers in this new era as a burned out cauldron at the dry center: Oklahoma, microcosm of America's lost dreams and clashing cultures.

The world of Violet and Beverly Weston, who rose from rag poor roots to prosperity and prominence, bursts and fizzles. August: Osage County exposes our collective guilt and despair and challenges us to recognize our hubris. The clichéd Anglo-American dream fades. Only the native people and the land hold strong.

August: Osage County is playing through September 26, Thursday and Friday performances at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 1:30 pm and 7:30 pm, and Sunday evenings at 6:00 p.m. Tickets are $30 General Admission, $25 Students and Seniors. Rush ticketing with valid school or union ID is required for students ($10) and actors ($20). For reservations call 766-9412. The Cell at 700 1st St. NW, just west of Broadway and south of Lomas, has plenty of free parking.

Photo: Richard K. Hogle

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Albuquerque area

-- Rosemary Keefe