Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
August: Osage County
There is no scale high enough to measure the diseased dysfunction of this blistering brood, and there are hardly enough superlatives to describe the brilliance of this darkest, funniest, most jarring-to-the-bone of comedies about family. Pear Theatre jumps head over heels into the muck and dirt of the Westons with a cast that proves they all have the mettle to do what it takes to bring Tracy Letts' script to full, rambunctious, no-holes-barred lifebe it pulling someone's hair, throwing dishes, or chasing mom around the house screaming at full voice, "I'm in charge now!"
With an Oklahoma drawl slow and dignified, the aging but handsome patriarch of the Weston family Beverly (Bill C. Jones) opens the play by quoting his favorite poet, T.S. Elliot, "Life is very long." As he interviews a local young woman of Cherokee heritage, Johnna, to be a live-in housekeeper for the family (something his wife has no idea he is doing), he wryly admits, "My wife takes pills, and I drink. That's the bargain we've struck." Later, with a half-smile and eyes that are both sad and sympathetic, he tells her in what turns out to be a foreboding of what is to come, "The place isn't in such bad shape, not yet." Bad enough, however, that after this prologue, the play opens with Beverly's having mysteriously disappeared, with all the immediate and extended family heading home to worry and console, soon to mourn, but mostly it turns out, to bicker and battle with full vigor and venom.
Violet Weston is the matriarch of this clan and has pills hidden everywherefrom inside her bra to most nooks and crannies all around the house. The many pills she openly takes are at least partly to relieve the burning in her mouth from recently diagnosed mouth cancer (a cruel joke of nature for a woman who emits from that mouth every four-letter word and insult imaginable to anyone and everyone around her). Diane Tasca brings all her many years of theatrical acting, directing and producing to bear in her bold, biting, blustery portrayal of this mother who has no problem lashing out in monstrous tirade at any of her family members one minute, and then becoming in the next a slumping, defeated ball of tears seeking their love and compassion. In her doped state, she barely hangs onto the handrail, stumbling down the steps from her bedroom to a waiting, on-edge family below, all the time slurring words to the point of turning them into some unintelligible tongue. When only in a mild state of numbness, her venom can strike at any moment, as in one family gathering around the dinner table when her victims await their individual, inevitable, verbal lashings as she proclaims, "I'm just truth-telling ... It's time we had some truth around here." Ms. Tasca takes the part made famous on stage by Deanna Dunagan and Estelle Parsons and in film by Meryl Streep and brings her own stunning interpretation that covers such a range of emotional and physical expression to be jaw-dropping.
Three daughters/sisters gather in the family homestead, each bringing her own personal old and new issues, resentments, and secretsall of which will spill forth both in trickles and floods. Barbara, the first-born, has long escaped the Plains, has avoided the family as much as she can, and has come home with a professor-husband she is divorcing since he is shacking up with one of his college students. Betsy Kruse Craig never fails to find new ways to vividly express with rolled eyes, tongue-stuck-out in cheek, exasperated sighs, and tense clutching of hands all the angst, anger and, yes, disgust she so often experiences with everyone from her mother to her sisters to her husband and fourteen-year-old daughter. She rises to larger-than-life proportions when she decides it is time to take over and do a "pill raid" in the house; and yet she collapses into a defeat of will and spirit when, in the end, she is abandoned by those closest to her.
Michael Champlin is Barbara's cheating husband Bill, who is overall a nice guy with a compassionate (if also wandering) heart but also with a temper that knows how to push Barbara's buttons as she pushes his. Vivian Pride is her weed-smoking daughter Jean who brings an adult edge and look to her teenage body and personality. Jean also openly flirts with trouble as part of her own rebellion and confusion of the adult battles going on around her.
Sister number two is another Oklahoma escapee, Karen (Marjorie Hazeltine), who has arrived from Florida with a fiancé no one knows about or has met (a very slick and sleazy Dan Kapler as Steve Heidebrecht who happens to like weed and teenage girls). Karen tries her hardest to be pleasing, perky, and pleasant as she works hard to convince everyone that she has found the perfect mate (even if he has already been married three times). After some very despicable behavior by Steve leads to a quick exit by both, she shrugs it off saying, "He's not perfect. Just like all the rest of us, down here in the muck."
Janine Evans is forty-four-year-old middle sister Ivy, who has up to now remained in the same town as her parents but has mostly been ignored and ridiculed by her mother for not wearing make-up, not donning a dress, and not finding a husband. Her Ivy is quiet, intensely observant, and slow to join in the family feud around her. Her withdrawal is partly due to a secret plan she has for her own escape from the familyone that will explode as more long held secrets burst from a box not unlike Pandora's.
The family is rounded out in grand fashion by Violet's sister Mattie Fae, her husband Charlie, and son Little Charles. Mattie Fae is a dyed redhead who tends to talk incessantly in her Okie accent, rarely taking time for a breath or to notice if anyone is actually listening. Leslie Newport is at one moment sweet and ever-so chummy with her relatives and at the next, nothing short than a viper. The latter is especially true whenever she refers to or speaks to her son Little Charles (Max Tachis), who happens to be thirty-seven but has the quiet look of innocence and inexperience of someone half his age. Her husband Charles (Gary Mosher), whom she clearly adores, is mostly patient, good-hearted (especially compared to everyone else around him), and son-defending. As a family, they too reek in secretssome of which will collide in the worst of ways.
Watching all the goings-on and often being the only real adult in the room is the Native American housekeeper Johnna Monevata. Roneet Aliza Rahamim perfectly plays her as the one person others find will listen without outward judgment, who mostly watches eruptions pretending not to notice but is also willing to step in and take over when evil shows its very ugly head. She, who hears the elderly Beverly open the play with T.S. Elliot, closes the three-hour tale with another of the poet's quotes, "This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends."
Jeanie K. Smith directs this very long play with its many scenes, characters and explosions at such a pace and flow that the time passes quickly and effortlessly from an audience member's perspective. Her challenge, and that of this production, is the setting. In other productions I have seen, the set of the Weston home is large and three-storied with multiple, large rooms. The small Pear Theatre space means that a relatively narrow stretch the width of the theatre must be divided into rather small rooms, with important interactions and scenes sometimes occurring in cramped space and somewhat far from some of the audience for best hearing and seeing (e.g., act two's pivotal scene around the dinner table). Other inflammatory scenes come close to spilling into the first row of the intimate setting with the shouting and shoving almost too close for comfort.
But those multiple, very physical, family confrontations are ably choreographed by James Kopp and director Smith. Tara Vickery has ensured that the dialects of the Plains sound authentic and natural. Anna Chase has given each character the dress and look that highlights personal and emotional qualities, including a baggy, purple velour robe for Violet that says everything about her final, lost state of mind as she aimlessly points into the audience saying, "And then you're gone, and then you're gone ... ."
Pear Theatre has mounted an ambitious undertaking in bringing Tracy Letts' caustic, dark comedy of many words, turns of events, and physical eruptions to its compact stage. What makes this production work is that Jeanie K. Smith has brought together a cast more than ready for the challenge of the incredible script and has made it work, even in a setting not totally conducive to the demands of the story.
August: Osage County continues through July 10th, 2016, at 1110 La Avenida, Mountain View. Tickets are available at www.thepear.org or by calling 650-254-1148.