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Theater review: 'August: Osage County' at the Ahmanson Theatre

September 10, 2009 |  4:30 pm

August 2

According to playwright Tracy Letts, T.S. Eliot got it wrong. August, not April, is the cruelest month, especially if you’re experiencing a spiraling domestic crisis in the sweltering heat of Pawhuska, Okla., with the locusts raging outside and the old family pathologies running amok in the even more stifling climate indoors.

The occasion for all this flamboyant and sensationally entertaining misery is Letts’ highly decorated play “August: Osage County," the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner that opened Wednesday at the Ahmanson Theatre. The production, directed by Anna D. Shapiro, features a cast headed by Estelle Parsons in the to-die-for dysfunctional role of Violet, the pill-popping matriarch of the Weston clan, which has banded together at the old homestead after Beverly (Jon DeVries), the alcoholic poet patriarch, alarmingly disappears.

Time, in other words, for kith and kin to sharpen the flaying knives. Those ancient parent-child grievances, still unappeasable after all these years, are about to get a painfully overdue airing.

August1“My wife takes pills and I drink. That’s the bargain we’ve struck....” This memorable line, which will haunt over the play’s third and final act like a scary-majestic fire cloud as history repeats itself, is spoken by Beverly to Johnna (DeLanna Studi), the young Native American woman he hires to take care of his wife.

Barbara (Shannon Cochran), the eldest of the three Weston daughters, arrives on the scene to comfort her scathing, strung-out mother. As events grimly unfold, she says to her precocious, pot-smoking daughter, Jean (Emily Kinney), “Thank God we can’t tell the future. We’d never get out of bed.”

But the Westons are cursed with an intuition that divine rescue from their chronic unhappiness isn’t in the cards. They are as ruthlessly unsentimental as their author, who overloads their plates with double-helpings of trouble — addiction, cancer, infidelity, divorce, sexual abuse, even incest.

Karen (Amy Warren), the youngest of her siblings, might still have some hope left, besotted as she is with her new Floridian fiancé, Steve (Laurence Lau), whose roving eye is as inappropriate as his cellphone etiquette. Yet the frantic nature of her chatter signals that she’s every bit as desperate as her sister Ivy (Angelica Torn), who has fallen in love with her unemployed first-cousin Little Charles (Stephen Riley Key), son of the garishly colorful Mattie Fae (Libby George), who browbeats him as mercilessly as she does her long-suffering husband, Charlie (Paul Vincent O’Connor).

August-Osage-CountyPG Sad to say but Barbara, whose professor husband, Bill (Jeff Still), is traveling with her even though he’s gotten romantically involved back home in Colorado with one of his students, may have found the best match of the lot — and they're in the acrimonious endgame of their marriage.

Fortunately, Americans love their doom-laden family dramas, the more damaged and demented the better. Our most cherished classics are a series of psychiatric case studies, with the Tyrones of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” the Wingfields of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” and the Lomans of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” constituting not just a caravan of indelible characters but a national heritage of suffering rooted in false promises and dashed dreams.

Letts, a compelling actor as well as dramatist whose previous works include “Killer Joe” and “Bug,” two plays that combined sociological poetry with suspenseful gore, and the more existentially meditative “Man From Nebraska,” stakes his claim in the domestic tragedy pantheon by preparing a banquet table of resentment and recrimination for a large ensemble to devour. The scale is epic and the mood is bludgeoning, but Letts leavens the heavy meal with a twisted black humor that mixes the zingy invective of Edward Albee, the behavioral magnifying lens of Sam Shepard and the satiric sharp-shooting that occasionally brings to mind such contemporary filmmakers as Todd Solondz and Todd Field.

The play’s pedigree could be expanded in ways both high and low, but “August” brews its own distinctive mix of tragicomic gravitas and florid pop. Does it have the wider resonance of the best American drama? Not so much in the overarching vision as in the dead-on moments between characters. Does it occasionally indulge in an audience-pandering staginess? Yes, if flinging crockery applies. Is Letts too generous to actors, writing scenes that overextend the operatic length of his drama? The play is almost supernaturally engaging, but there's some unnecessary sprawl.

This touring Steppenwolf Theatre Company production, visually distinguished by set designer Todd Rosenthal’s open floor plan of the Westons’ roomy house, seems less austere than its original Broadway incarnation  — hard as that may be to imagine for newcomers, startled by all the unremitting brutality flambéed with baleful laughter. The issue stems in part from the capacious Ahmanson's notorious lack of intimacy, but it also reflects the slightly gentler tack of Shapiro's cast.

Parsons, who replaced Tony-winner Deanna Dunagan during the show's impressive New York run, brings a softer, more accessible quality to Violet — the ferocity may be tamped down but the character is perhaps more recognizable. And the stinging maternal realism she finds in her confrontations with Torn’s sensitive Ivy, the daughter who confounds her expectations of womanly beauty, and Cochran’s inexhaustibly fierce Barbara, who ultimately challenges her “truth-telling” tyranny, elicits a comparable grittiness from her fellow performers.

“August” is a feast for actors and audiences alike. The ensemble doesn’t disappoint, though with so much bitter hilarity and poignancy served up, don't be surprised if you need a few antacids afterward.

-- Charles McNulty

"August: Osage County," Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave.,  Los Angeles. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Call for exceptions. Ends Oct.18. $20 to $80. (213) 972-4400.  Running time:  3 hours, 30 minutes.

Related coverage:

Tracy Letts, after the dog days of 'August: Osage County'

Photo: Top: Paul Vincent O'Connor, Emily Kinney, Estelle Parsons, Shannon Cochran, Jeff Still and Libby George. Bottom: Parsons and Angelica Torn. Credit: Christine Cotter / Los Angeles Times

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