August: Osage County

Ah, there's nothing like a nice family story to brighten one's day. This is not that story, and the Westons are not that family. Foul-mouthed, abusive and Dysfunctional (with a capital D), and extremely well-written by Tracy Letts, they are a family you won't like. But do you laugh or cry? It's a tough call.

August: Osage County is a product of the esteemed Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago. The author is a company member, and the majority of the original cast (in Chicago and on Broadway) are company members. The play won a slew of awards in Chicago and in New York, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. And it's an unprecedented (in modern theatre) nearly 3-1/2 hour, three-act play.

The touring production's set (design by Todd Rosenthal) is a slightly scaled down version of the marvel from Broadway: a giant dollhouse, in which we can view the cast moving among three floors. The touring cast is good, but not quite at the level of the originals (if you didn't see the originals, you may give the current cast higher marks).

As matriarch Violet Weston—the drug-addicted, cigarette smoke ravaged, bitter mother who takes "telling it like it is" to new and painful heights—Estelle Parsons is a smart choice. A terrific actress, she delights the audience with the rough and shocking (and funny) language provided by author Letts. Number one daughter Barbara, whom we watch go from merely on-edge to an off-hinge version of her raging mother, is played by Shanon Cochran. It's a really tough role to pull off, and Cochran does a fine job. They are supported by valiant performances by the rest of the talented cast. The jewel here is Letts' play, and the cascade of revelations, which cause some of the Westons to spiral out of control and others to flee for their lives. All we can do is watch, pity and squirm.

The basic plot is simple: Father and husband Beverly Weston has gone missing. His sister- and brother-in-law, three daughters, son-in-law (and one potential son-in-law), nephew, and granddaughter gather at the family home, to support mother Weston, in worry and fear of his fate. Imagine your family gathering for such an event. Now add drugs, alcohol, cancer, incest, child abuse, and a couple of soap opera-worthy family secrets. It's to Letts' great credit that some of this—not all, but much of it—generates laughs. Sometimes, it's nervous laughter because of the sheer appalling nature of what is going on, and sometimes it's because Letts writes with a dark humor that isn't forced or predictable.

Because the dialogue is the star, it's a shame that the Benedum is just too large for a straight play. True, some characters' speech is intentionally slurred, but that's not always the culprit. You will know what's going on (a handy family tree in the program should be consulted before curtain or at the first intermission), but you'll miss some of the best writing to come along in a long time.

August: Osage County at the Benedum Center through April 11. For more information, visit Also visit the touring production's website at

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-- Ann Miner

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