Currently at the Kennedy Center is a touring production of the Tony Award-winning play August: Osage County. Scott and I were lucky enough to get some discounted tickets, and it was well worth it!
The play is definitely a black comedy. Playwright Tracy Letts has a real gift for humor, offering up more laughs than I would have expected from such dark subject matter. And yet she imbues her characters with deep, often hidden motivations which are what carry the play to its inevitable resolution. But truly I laughed so hard and so often – it was fantastic! Truly, utterly hilarious.
The plot begins by introducing us to the parents of the Weston clan – Beverly and his wife Violet. He’s a washed up poet and an alcoholic, she’s perpetually addicted to prescription drugs. Our window on their world is the housekeeper that Beverly hires – Johnna, a soft-spoken Cheyenne Indian in need of a job. But tragedy strikes, and the whole family comes out of the woodwork – first Violet’s sister Mattie Fae and her husband Charlie and later their own son “Little Charles.” All three of the Weston daughters also come to roost – Barbara, Ivy and Karen.
Barbara, the eldest, is full of disdain and rage at her parents, fueled by her separation from her husband Bill. She feels like she can’t control her daughter Jean, and vows not to make the same mistakes. But as is so often the case, the sins of the parents are passed onto their children.
Ivy is the middle daughter who has remained in this small Oklahoma town to care for her parents. On the surface she is scattered and genteel, but when she starts talking, it’s evident she’s anything but happy to see her sisters.
Karen is the youngest and full of life – so full of it that she chatters on and on, ignoring what’s happening around her. She says that she has found happiness in life with her fiancée Steve, but is she just settling?
Well all those truths do come out, because at a feisty family dinner, matriarch Violet really lets go. She’s determined that “truths will be told” and she could care less about the consequences. What follows is a lot of laughing, fighting and crying.
The strength of this show is really in the acting – most of the cast sparkles with the material they’ve been given, no matter how small the role. Estelle Parsons as Violet proves she has come a long way from her stint on Roseanne, offering a searing portrayal of a woman with one foot firmly over the edge. All three daughters are remarkable – Angelica Torn is full of quiet rage and clever one-liners as Ivy, while Amy Warren makes certain you won’t forget her bubbly Karen. But the powerhouse is Shannon Cochran as Barbara, who matches Parsons blow for blow. When she seethes with lines like, “Eat your fish, BITCH,” let’s just say you feel like you’d better eat that fish, pronto.
I also was really happy with the Anna Shapiro’s direction – her sense of rhythm and timing are impeccable. It’s amazing how she’s able to milk the smallest moments for laughs, simply by spacing out the dialogue. She especially makes good use of DeLanna Studi as Johnna, who pops in at just the right moments to offer a good laugh or a much-needed moment of sanity. The overall pacing is also nice to see – for example, while Act 2 is very much about a shift in power between Violet and Barbara, the Act 3 opening is unquestionably controlled by Ivy as she unravels even more hidden secrets.
Lastly I have to admire the remarkable set design by Todd Rosenthal – a towering three-story house with at least seven visible rooms, and two staircases that get quite a workout. The players are given plenty of room to breathe, but the house still gives off a sense that we are trapped in this loony bin until the lights come up.
So to sum it up – you really, really should go see this show! (Not appropriate for kids – too much foul language.) Don’t let the long running time of 3 1/2 hours scare you away – the play blazes by, and with two brief intermissions you don’t get antsy. I understand there are still a lot of discount ticket offers there, so take advantage of them and see this show! Any seat in the Eisenhower Theater will be a good one for this play with larger than life personalities.