Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

August: Osage County
Novato Theater Company
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Richard's reviews of Monsoon Wedding, Smut: An Unseemly Story (The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson) and The Roar of the Greasepaint—The Smell of the Crowd

Heather Shepardson and Shirley Nilsen Hall
Photo by Fred Deneau
Tracy Letts' August: Osage County is not for the faint of heart. This is not an uplifting evening where laughter reigns, lessons are learned, and every character discovers something new and valuable about themselves and others. As Tolstoy famously said, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way; and the Westons are a uniquely miserable lot. Dad is a once-honored, now-failed poet who drinks. A lot. Mom pops pretty much anything that comes in pill form. Their three daughters are mostly estranged from each other—but reunite in the family home when dad goes missing after the first scene.

Unlike Beckett or Pinter, where much of the real action happens in subtext, little is hidden here. All the vitriol is on full public display. All the nasty things one might think about a family member who has let you down or disappointed you or failed (in your mind) to take adequate account of your needs are spoken out loud here. Nothing is held back. (This reaches its zenith when the eldest daughter Barb tells mom to "Eat the fish, bitch.") At one point, four groups of family are in four different sections of the big old house (in Eugene de Christopher and Sandra Lelich's wonderful multi-tiered set), conducting four simultaneous arguments in a fugue of dysfunction.

Fortunately, there's also quite a lot of humor. (Plus the comforting fact that almost anyone can experience August: Osage County and say, "at least my family's not that crazy.") Even out of context, the best lines resonate with a deep understanding of the human condition:

        "At least do me the courtesy of recognizing when I'm demeaning you."

        "Thank god we can't tell the future. We'd never get out of bed."

        "Never know when someone might need a kidney."

        "You have to be smart to be complicated."

        "All women need makeup."

        "Are you supposed to be smoking?" "Is anybody supposed to smoke?"

Over the course of three acts (and nearly three hours), the story builds and gets more complex and more tragic, revealing surprises to almost the very last scene.

This Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning play is ably mounted by the Novato Theater Company, with a mostly excellent cast (directed by Terry McGovern), led by Shirley Nilsen Hall as Violet Weston, the opioid-addled matriarch. Like the tornados that often tear across this part of the country (the Oklahoma panhandle), Violet is an unpredictable force of nature who leaves destruction and devastation wherever she touches down. Hall is marvelous in the role, bringing both a brittle vulnerability and powerful life force to her characterization. When Violet's pills have kicked in, Hall weaves and stumbles and slurs her speech—yet she somehow avoids making it look like a clichéd drunk act. No matter how far gone Violet is, Hall manages to project her fierce life force in every scene.

Hall is well supported (with one glaring exception) by the rest of her cast. As eldest daughter Barbara, Heather Shepardson brings wonderful physical precision to her portrayal. Her smallest actions—a glance at her nails, brushing aside a loose strand of hair—are done with intention (but not artifice) and enhance the humanity of the dutiful daughter who takes on the jobs no one else wants or is able to handle. Molly McCarthy's Ivy (another Weston daughter) is fragile but passionate, and Miriam Ani brings a wonderful cockeyed optimism to youngest Weston daughter Karen. No matter the tragedy we can see coming from a mile away, Karen maintains an upbeat, pragmatic and generally positive outlook—which Ani confidently delivers.

As Violet's sister Mattie Fae, Sandi V. Weldon steals scene after scene with her outsized, big-boned Southern girl approach to life. Weldon gives the role a kind of potency I didn't see in the previous three productions of August: Osage County I've had the pleasure to witness. Her almost drag queen-like swagger is a wonderful tempering agent for the tragedy happening around Mattie Fae.

Cindy Calderon is in her stage debut, never having acted prior to being seen in a downtown San Rafael café. She was convinced by director McGovern to portray Johnna, a Cheyenne woman hired in the first scene by Beverly (a strong performance from William G. Peden) to cook and clean for the family. This is Calderon's first production, and it shows. She often moves hesitantly, and declaims her lines with an automatonic flatness. I'm guessing she was directed to be reserved and reticent, a confident woman of few words, but the interpretation calls attention to itself as a performance, undercutting its ability to present the full richness of the character the playwright created.

Despite this, Novato Theater Company's production of August: Osage County is well worth your time. The play itself is magnificent, and I believe it will one day stand among the best of Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller as a classic work of American theatre.

August: Osage County runs through June 4, 2017, at the Novato Theater Company, 5420 Nave Drive, Novato. Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $27 general, $24 for seniors and students, $21 for NTC members and $12 for children under 12. Tickets and additional information are available at or by calling 415-883-4498.

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