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Theater review: 'August: Osage County' at San Diego's Old Globe

May 16, 2011 |  4:00 pm

Osage For the Old Globe’s staging of Tracy Letts’ acclaimed play “August: Osage County,” scenic designer David Zinn has built a three-story dollhouse on a human scale. Director Sam Gold revels in his power as the unseen agent who manipulates the characters through its dim, cluttered rooms and passages as artfully as a Cirque du Soleil choreographer. There’s always something shadowy going on upstairs or downstairs from the main action, and the central staircase provides the perfect spot for eavesdropping.

"August: Osage County," which won the  2008 Tony Award for best play and the Pulitzer Prize for drama, pretty much corners the market on black comedies about dysfunctional families. Try to come up with a more damaged clan than the Westons of Pawhuska, Okla. They'll see your suicides, extramarital affairs, alcoholism and narcotics addiction, and raise you pedophilia and incest. You think your mother was emotionally abusive? She’s a piker next to Violet (apparently based on Letts’ grandmother), perhaps the most soul-chilling stage villain ever written. 

In the prologue, patriarch Beverly Weston, a stalled poet (Robert Foxworth), is talking to Johnna (Kimberly Guerrero), a young Cheyenne woman he’s hired to take care of the tasks that are, as he puts it, “getting in the way of my drinking." Violet stumbles in, wacked out from pills she pops to numb the pain of mouth cancer, half-dressed, skeletal and incoherent. Anybody who has wrangled (or been) an intoxicated person will find her horrifyingly credible. Although Lois Markle plays it less for laughs than Estelle Parsons did in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production at the Ahmanson in fall 2009, she's
even more grotesque and, somehow, funnier. 

So the powerful malevolence that Violet displays after Beverly’s disappearance comes as a shock. Her refusal to use the air conditioner, insistence on duct-taping trash bags over the windows and hostility toward the family members who rush to her side make the house hell on Earth. At the dinner table, Violet eviscerates her three daughters so relentlessly that a volley of gasps rises from the audience like a communal asthma attack (which is actually a plausible concern, given the real cigarettes she and many of the other characters smoke onstage). 

“Everyone’s got this idea I’m mean all of a sudden,” Violet says self-pityingly. 

Markle may be a perfectly nice person, but in this role she’s so terrifying that if I ever find myself in a room with her I’ll hit the deck, combat-crawl to the nearest exit and catch the first flight out of the country. 

The other characters range from spineless to selfish to spiteful to self-deluding. The most honorable of the lot, Violet’s brother-in-law Charlie (Guy Boyd), raises a wan cheer from the smoke-stunned audience with his defense of kindness. But of course he’s a henpecked cuckold. Letts’ pessimism about human nature powers the play’s wit and insight. It also, after three hours, starts to feel brittle, even flip.

Still the enigmatic finale, when the formerly angelic Johnna quotes T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men” (“This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends ...”) as Violet crawls to her begging for help, gave me goosebumps. Once again “August” proves itself a resilient and rewarding canvas for a strong directorial vision.

 -- Margaret Gray

“August: Osage County,” the Old Globe, Balboa Park, San Diego. 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 7 p.m. Sundays (with some exceptions). Ends June 12. $29 to $85. (619) 234-5623 or Running time: 3 hours, 20 minutes.

Photo: The Weston family attempts to wrestle a pill bottle away from addicted matriarch Violet (Lois Markle, on the couch) in "August: Osage County" at the Old Globe. Credit: Henry DiRocco.