Nothing like a quiet get-together at the Weston house in "August: Osage County." Pine & Pebble Photography
Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County” is that rare play possessing genuine literary texture and rhythm but at the same time populated by characters so real and so stripped of all pretense that they could be any of us, mostly at our worst.
Without its moments of tenderness, the three-hour fusillade of family crises and resentments would be just about unbearable. Inflicting and absorbing pain is a pastime in the small-town Oklahoma home of the Westons. Letts’ unrelenting drama compels the audience not to look away but to reflect on both “August’s” eruptions and its devastating aftermaths. What it has to say about a family stricken by addiction, illness and the sheer fragility of being human is, sad but true, universal.
Produced only once before in San Diego, 12 years ago at the Old Globe, “August: Osage County” has returned in a staging by Backyard Renaissance that is a major achievement in the 8-year-old theater company’s rich and frequently bold history. How riveting is this production? Put it this way -- it’s inevitable that one will, as audience members are urged to do before the show, “sit FORWARD and enjoy.”
“August: Osage County” opens benignly enough, with patriarch and errant poet Beverly Weston (Robert Smyth) interviewing a prospective caregiver and cook, the Native American Johnna Monevata (Faith Carrion), all the while boozing and meandering over the wisdoms of T.S. Eliot. The weaving, incoherent arrival of wife Violet (Deborah Gilmour Smyth) suggests that this is a job Johnna should run from. Yet she agrees to stay.
Beverly is not seen again. It is subsequently revealed that he has disappeared and has been missing for five days by the time distant family members begin to arrive to join those already on the scene, ostensibly to support a frantic and disoriented Violet. Imagine the worst Thanksgiving Week get-together of your life, multiply its dysfunction and confrontations by 10, then double that.
The eldest of Beverly and Violet’s three daughters, Barbara (Jessica John), has come from Colorado with her estranged husband Bill (John DeCarlo) and disaffected teenage daughter Jean (Ava Smithmier). The couple is at each other’s throats from the very start, leaving Jean to retreat wherever she can to get high – at first to Johnna’s loft bedroom upstairs.
Daughter Ivy (Megan Carmitchel) lives nearby and it’s clear that she has secrets that she has no intention of sharing, in spite of the badgering from her mother and the ubiquitous Aunt Mattie Fae Aiken (Maggie Carney). Ivy has borne the load of tending to the erratic Violet’s needs and also taken the brunt of her mother’s ire and hysterics. (This will change the longer that Barbara, who gives as good as she gets when it comes to Violet, is on the premises.)
Before the third Weston daughter, Karen (Kay Marian McNellen), arrives from Florida, the household is roused very early in the morning by the sheriff of Pawhuska, Deon Gilbreau (Justin Lang) with the news that Beverly has been found dead near his boat, drowned from a suspected suicide.
Can things get any worse?
Daughter Karen, accompanied by her fiancé Steve (Rob Lutfy), can only twitter about her engagement and a dreamed trip to Belize. She seems not to give a good goddamn about either of her parents – she’s having too much fun. As for Steve, he’ll show himself to be quirky and creepy before story’s end.
Aunt Mattie Fae and her husband, the well-meaning but rather bumbling Charlie (Jacob Bruce), have brought with them their loner grown son “Little Charlie” (Anthony Methvin). His sub-story will be one of “August’s” most wrenching.
A funeral-day meal with the entire family around the table becomes an arena for Violet’s rage, cruelty and histrionics, reaching the point that Barbara can stand no more. The climax of Act 2 is a near-brawl with pills flying everywhere.
Act 3 brings more shocks. Ultimately, the closing line of the play, from Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” is stark and fitting.
Backyard Renaissance co-founder (with John and Methvin) Francis Gercke expertly meets the challenges of directing this incredibly complex production. At times there are a dozen actors onstage at once. Conversations intertwine and emanate at full volume from multiple points – the living room, the dining room, the alcove and doorway, the staircase that leads upstairs. Just as fluid is “August’s” shifting tone and atmosphere – three acts’ worth of tension, explosiveness and despair.
This large cast is the one of the most gifted ensembles assembled for a dramatic production in some time locally, rivaling New Village Arts’ equally sprawling “The Ferryman” earlier this year. It’s an all-star contingent that one and all deliver memorable performances.
At the forefront is Deborah Gilmour Smyth as cancer-ridden and drug-ravaged Violet Weston. One of the most fiercely no-holds-barred dramatic roles of the 21st century, playwright Letts’ Violet is a broken but unbowed woman whose meanness and self-destruction know no bounds. With her every nuance of physicality and each cutting criticism, Smyth makes Violet a volatile, unpredictable figure who fosters dread and anxiety whenever she joins the battleground that is the Weston house.
Nancy Friday’s landmark treatise on the interdependency and psychology of the mother-daughter relationship, “My Mother/My Self” could well have been written about Violet and Barbara, who all but tear each other’s hearts and guts out in “August: Osage County” and yet understand (and maybe love?) each other as no two other members of the family can.
This production features one of Jessica John’s most shattering and yet poignant performances as Barbara, who in the midst of her own world crashing down, somehow appoints herself the family fixer – at the cost of her own elusive longing for happiness.
With its exceptional acting turns, Backyard’s “August: Osage County” has technical support to match. The set by Tony Cucuzzella is a marvel at how it works in the small Tenth Avenue environs. Befitting the story, it’s both roomy and claustrophobic.
Lighting by Erik Montierth facilitates all the sensitivity required in the production’s most solitary moments, as when Violet, in the presence of Beverly’s shelves of books, curses the husband who left her, and when Barbara, numb with grief, sits by herself after her husband and daughter have left her.
I’ve always believed that the running time of a theatrical production or film doesn’t matter if the excellence is there.
It’s here. Make no mistake.
“August: Osage County” runs through Sept. 16 at the Tenth Avenue Arts Center downtown.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.