Friday, April 9, 2010

Theatre review: "August: Osage County" in the Broadway series @ Benedum-Sunday 11 May 2010

You don’t have much time remaining to witness a superbly acted and directed traveling version of Tracy Letts’ award- winning play August: Osage County. It won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play. Some of us feel that such awards don’t automatically mean masterpieces. However, in this case, the awards seem justified including one for director Anna D. Shapiro whose work is evident here.

Given that this is a drama, one with substantial content, it remains remarkable that it had a long run on Broadway, 18 months, at a time when most big hits are musicals. It becomes easy to see why this play attracts audiences. It contains many legitimate laughs but can’t really be called a comedy. At the same time, it deals with family dynamics, something familiar in real life as well as in movies and on TV. Moreover it remains original and unpredictable. You do need to know, just in case, that, like other plays by Tracy Letts, August Osage County is full of expletives. Unlike such plays as Bug or Killer Joe, there is no nudity. Moreover this does not concern equally violent people on the economic fringes of American society. These characters are prosperous and they are intelligent and articulate, even in anger.

In a large Oklahoma country home belonging to Violet Weston and her husband Beverly their extended family gathers in August for a funeral. It focuses on their three grown daughters, Violet’s sister Mattie Fae plus two husbands, one sister’s fiancé, one adult son and one teen daughter plus a Cheyenne native housekeeper. Over several days recriminations and revelations abound while past behaviors point to bleak futures amid such themes as alcoholism, drug abuse, aging, death, infidelity, incest, pedophilia and generational gaps. Among these characters, love, insight and the ability to adapt emerge as well. People, in other words, with depth. Credit Tracy Letts for writing this so well.

In this version of August: Osage County, credit too the actors and director for making it fascinating, colorful, compelling and convincing. And the humor comes from what people inadvertently say, rather than coming up with jokes. Given that there are 13 actors in the cast I’d prefer not to cite individually so may superb performances, especially since the actors are probably not known locally. Moreover this comes across most as an ensemble experience. And, although long-time star Estelle Parsons has a leading role, it never seems a vehicle for her. Like others on stage with her, she impeccably conveys the passions, moods, vulnerabilities and variety common to human beings much like ourselves. Opening night I did feel ,however, that Jon DeVries’ take on Beverly was out of step with the truthfulness of the other important characters, as if trying too hard.

One other thing. This is supposed to be taking place in a very hot time of year for Oklahoma. Such conditions would naturally heat of up tempers and cause other weaknesses to percolate. Yet I got no clear indication of that in the dialogue, the acting and the directing.

As on Broadway, where this light shone clearly amid the glitter of so many musicals, it’s great, in what’s called "The Broadway Series", to have such a drama, alive and well in this impressive production.

The final performance of August: Osage County is at 7 pm Sunday April 11th at Benedum Center. Tickets and info at 412/ 456-6666 or

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