Review: “August: Osage County” by Tracy Letts. Produced by Balagan Theatre. Directed by Shawn Belyea. With Shellie Shulkin, Chris Ensweiler, Charles Leggett, Teri Lazzara, Caitlin Frances, Kate Jaeger, John Q. Smith, Lisa Viertel, Ashley Bagwell, Gordon Carpenter, Devynne Gannon, David Goldstein, Jordi Montes. Now through April 27, 2013 at the Erickson Theater.
Sometimes plays win awards, accolades and recognition and you just scratch your head and think, “Really? Yasmina Reza is the best that contemporary theater can come up with?” But then, Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre premieres company member Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County” in 2007 and it wins the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Awards and transfers to Broadway for a long run, and takes London and the rest of the world by storm, and it’s all good because for once, a play actually lives up to its well deserved reputation. “August: Osage County” is Mr. Letts’ brilliantly written three act ode to the Dysfunctional American Family that’s one part Greek Tragedy, one part Sam Shepard and about two and a half parts the most brilliantly written episode of “Roseanne” ever. With two intermissions it runs about a three hours and 40 minutes, but it’s the fastest three hours and 40 minutes you’ll spend in a theater. It’s a breathless ride with crackling dialogue, tense drama, high soap opera and very profane comedy. In lesser hands, it could potentially be a mess, but Mr. Letts has a gift for the macabre and blistering lines that could peel the paint off your Grandma’s front porch and it must be a joy for any actor to tear into that text.
Such is the case with Balagan’s current production of “Osage”, and yes, some local theater snobs might be scratching their patrician heads wondering, “Why is little Balagan doing this big, prestigious play and not one of the big houses like ACT or the Rep?” And, we have to be honest and admit that we thought the same thing when the season was announced but we have the sneaky suspicion it probably boils down to money…”August” has 13 roles in it and that’s a lot of payroll for an Equity house. If the Rep had acquired the rights to this show, we would have to enjoy their take on “August”…and endure 5 solo shows for the rest of their season to make up for the huge cast outlay for the “big” show.
The good news is: “little” Balagan has managed to pull off a terrific production that still manages to sneak in two Equity actors in addition to a stage full of fantastic local actors without union cards. Director Shawn Belyea has done a masterful job of staging this complicated show and that huge cast (it’s hard enough moving two or three actors around on a stage, let alone 13…) It’s a briskly funny yet tragic look at a family that’s falling apart and while some aspects of the plot might be far-fetched or overtly soap operatic, it’s actually a rather honest look at the dynamics of all families, warts and all. Hopefully, most of us don’t have to encounter multiple family skeletons at every family wedding, funeral or reunion that we attend but if we’re being honest, the majority of us has had to endure at least one disastrous family revelation at some point in our lives. (I’ll volunteer one: One Christmas my Bitchy Paternal Grandmother was so awful to her son, my dad, that my mom had the pleasure of throwing her mother-in-law out of the house…FUN!)
The Westons are the family at the heart of “August: Osage County” and as the title indicates, we’re in Oklahoma not far from Tulsa. Beverly Weston is the family patriarch, a poet and academic and an alcoholic coping with a shrewish wife addicted to pain medication. As the play opens, Beverly hires Johnna, a soft spoken Native American woman, to serve as housekeeper and help keep Violet, his messy wife, from going off the rails. Beverly apparently has other reasons for hiring household help, because a few weeks after hiring Johnna, he vanishes. While the police investigate, Beverly and Violet’s three daughters and their families, and Violet’s sister and her family, all arrive to help cope with the situation. Things quickly deteriorate as the news about Beverly’s fate is not good and as the family gathers, enough skeletons are revealed to fill a cemetery including run of the mill stuff like divorce, drug addiction, alcoholism and some issues of paternity but the play digs deep enough into the proverbial closet to bring up pedophilia and incest. It’s like the ultimate episode of The Maury Povich Show but without hysterical women terrified by mundane things like cling peaches or cotton balls…
Yes, it sounds ridiculous, but Mr. Letts has the ability to keep it all in check, helped largely by his gift for dialogue. The monstrous family at the heart of “August” always seem to be real people dealing with surreal problems. It’s true that most families don’t have quite these many problems to deal with all at once, but in reality, a good many of us do have families that can check quite a few of these issues off the “Oh, My Crazy Family!” checklist. The scathing dialogue and the universality of the situation (family dysfunction) make for arresting drama.
It takes a village of very competent actors to pull off all this high drama and bitter comedy and fortunately Balagan has rounded up a highly talented cast to fill all 13 roles. It’s been quite awhile since Charles Leggett has played on a smaller stage; he’s been busy starring in ACT and Rep shows for the last few years, but his brief appearance at the very beginning of the play sets the tone for all that follows. Like the other three actors who play the oldest generation in the show, Mr. Leggett is far too young to realistically play Beverly Weston but the actor’s gravitas seals the deal and the performance is quietly strong and self-assured. The same could be said for John Q. Smith who plays his brother-in-law, Charlie Aiken…both actors have a similar persona, a quiet strength in their layered and nuanced performances.
It’s also good to see Chris Ensweiler in a subdued role for a change…the actor frequently plays larger than life characters; here he’s quietly contained and very naturalistic in his role as Bill Fordham, the estranged husband of eldest daughter Barbara. Meanwhile, Gordon Carpenter has the delightful (?) task of playing the creepiest character, Steve Heidebrecht, the fiance of daughter Ivy, a shady Floridian with a taste for weed and underage girls. The character is comic but also slimy and Mr. Carpenter does an excellent job of exploring all aspects of a role that could end up cartoony in the hands of a less talented actor.
But, “August: Osage County” is a tour de force show for the women characters and the actresses who play those roles, and the ladies of this production really dominate the stage. Young Devynne Gannon is very believable and charming as the film obsessed granddaughter, Jean Fordham; it’s a naturalistic and highly believable performance. Caitlin Frances as Ivy, the daughter who still lives near her parents, has the least “showy” of the three daughter roles, but she very ably captures the reality of her character, a woman held captive by the demands of her parents and life in a small town. Kate Jaeger, best known as one of Seattle’s premiere comedic actresses naturally makes the most out of the funny aspects of her role as sister Kate but she also exquisitely captures the pain of the character as well, a woman desperate enough for a relationship that she’s willing to overlook the fact her fiance tried to molest her niece. And, in a role that has quite a lot of stage time but not very many lines, Jordi Montes is highly effective as the housekeeper Johnna, a role that requires a simple quiet intensity as the only face of calm in the Weston household.
The three big “OMG” roles in “August”, the ones that result in awards/nominations for the actresses who play them, are Violet, the drug addicted family matriarch; Barbara Fordham, Violet’s oldest and fiercest daughter who’s dealing with the onset of menopause, a crumbling marriage and a multitude of family disasters; and Mattie Fay, Violet’s mealy mouthed, opinionated younger sister,who has a secret or two of her own. As Violet, actress Shellie Shulkin owns this role and this production; it’s a commanding, volcanic performance that also remains highly sympathetic despite the selfish, malevolent intent of the character. Violet is a monster, and while Ms Shulkin is having a fine old time ripping up the stage with the power of those moments when Violet is at her most evil, she also very effectively plays the tenderness and the pain of the character as well. It’s a brilliant performance…and, one that is also matched by the actress playing her chief adversary, her daughter Barbara, and Teri Lazzara is equally as strong and compelling as the only family member able to combat the demons that inhabit her mother. It’s a big, ballsy performance of a woman who is just about at the end of her tether and Ms Lazzara is very adept at capturing that fear and desperation as well as the vicious strength she uses to fight for her family and her own sanity. These are two of the biggest and best roles in American theater for women actors and both Ms Shulkin and Ms Lazzara play them for all their worth.
Lisa Viertel as Mattie Fay is also quite strong but handicapped by the fact the actress is far too young to play this character…she’s been made up to appear older, but while Ms Shulkin, Mr. Leggett, and Mr. Smith are able to skate by the fact they aren’t really physically old enough to play their respective roles, Ms Viertel, one of Seattle’s finest actresses, just doesn’t convince as a woman in her mid/late 50’s in appearance or demeanor. It’s a bit like when one goes to college theater productions and encounters 22 year old students trying to play Willy Loman…it fails to convince. And, it’s not the actress’s fault; it’s miscasting. I’d like to see Ms Viertel tackle this role in about a dozen years.
One other criticism. I’ve been kind to Balagan and their lack of polish when it comes to the design and technical elements of their productions. They were excused for years, for being a new, poor theater company and handicapped by their previous home in the dreadful basement theater under Boom Noodle on Pike Street. Then, they moved to the very professional theater space at the Erickson and I still gave them a pass on the pedestrian set/lighting/sound designs for otherwise strong productions like “Spring Awakening” and “Avenue Q”…they were serviceable at best but always lacked the polish necessary to appear truly professional. But, Balagan obviously aims to be a “Player” in Seattle theater; they’re an ambitious company that is willing to spend the money to hire Equity actors and acquire the rights to big name, expensive shows so it’s time to get real about the design elements of their productions. “August: Osage County” isn’t poorly designed but it seems unfinished and rushed; the basic set design by Ahren Buhmann is fine, but the set decoration is lazy and unpolished and smacks of low budget community theater. Money and time are always a concern for every non-profit arts organization but Balagan needs to up the ante when it comes to design and tech elements. If they are willing and able to do “big” productions with “big” actors, then they need to find the extra money and time to lift the design/tech elements to a similar “big” level.
The set could use some wallpaper and the lighting could be a bit tighter, but all the other elements of Balagan’s “August: Osage County”…the brilliant script by Mr. Letts and the finely directed and acted production make it one of the best things on a Seattle stage in a long time. It’s a long play, but the time flies by and unlike real life, dysfunctional family reunions, you can gracefully leave the chaos and go have a lovely drink afterward at the bar & grill of your choice and not worry about your own drug addict mama or leering pedo of a brother-in-law.