You don’t need the title of August: Osage County to know this play takes place on a series of hot summer nights: the heat nearly rises off the floorboards, and imbuing the characters with raw sizzle and passion.
Not that they need any help. The dysfunctional family trope is alive and well as director David Drake takes on Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play and draws out drama worthy of any episode of the Jerry Springer show.
A T.S. Eliot quote—“Life is very long”—kicks off the production, and audiences should be forewarned, the play is, too: three and a half hours, with two intermissions. And a word of warning about language and situations that could be triggering for some audience members.
The play opens on a set showing three split levels of a clapboard house, and set designer Ellen Rousseau is absolutely at the top of her game here; the audience sits on either side of the stage, giving people an omniscient sense of not just seeing the scenes, but seeing through the scenes, figuratively as well as literally. Prescription pill and liquor bottles seem to be within reach from anywhere in the house, and it’s immediately apparent why.
Because everyone does something to excess, whether it’s alcohol, drugs, sex, or sheer rage.
Beverly (Adam Peck), the family’s patriarch, has disappeared, and his wife Violet (brilliantly played by Jaris Hanson), suffering from cancer and hooked on pain pills, has summoned the extended family, who oblige, filling the house with their individual dramas. Everyone appears to be in a race to see who can consume the most alcohol—and exhibit the most narcissism—in the least amount of time.
Violet is divided between speculating about Bev and sniping at her daughters Ivy (Laura Cappello), who is single, and Barbara (Ann Stott), who arrives from Colorado with her husband and teenaged daughter in tow. The tension between Barbara and Violet is nearly palpable when Violet accuses Barbara of “breaking her father’s heart” by moving away from the Oklahoma homestead. And gimlet-eyed Violet is quick to attack the friction between Barbara and her husband (Tim Famulare), separated after his affair with one of his students. Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae Aiken (Jennifer Cabral), and the women’s husbands, boyfriends, and children arrive just in time to learn of Bev’s drowning, apparently by suicide.
At the center of the conflict are Violet and Barbara; Barbara is in the incredibly difficult position of trying to seize control of the situation at hand while dealing with the presence of her husband and daughter—not surprisingly bringing a few issues of their own into the mix. As the scenes evolve, Barbara is appalled to see how much like Violet she has become, and Stott handles that horror as well as her own approach to a breaking point with depth and skill.
It’s clear Violet wants the rest of the family to suffer as much as she is, and this group rises to the occasion. The cast of family members angrily exhumes their individual skeletons even as they bury Beverly through a mostly witty, occasionally biting, and even sometimes dull script.
The ensemble cast works well together and, besides those listed above, includes Colin Delaney (Little Charles Aiken), Celia Cote (Jean Fordham), Dave LaFrance (Steve Heidenbrecht, in his début role), Sandra Paredes (Johanna Monevata),Vanessa Rose (Karen Weston), and Nathaniel Hall Taylor (Sheriff Deon Gilbeau).
There are some clever and really wonderful lines: “He isn’t complicated, he’s just unemployed. You have to be smart to be complicated,” says Violet; Barbara screams, “At least do me the courtesy of recognizing when I’m demeaning you!” And the whole play seems to be summed up neatly in the line, “Thank God we can’t tell the future; we’d never get out of bed.” The best lines have the sharpest edges, and this is a family willing to cut each other to shreds.
Past productions of Letts’ play have drawn a harder parallel between the family’s dysfunctional treatment of each other and the country’s treatment of Native Americans; without that emphasis, one is left wondering what the point is of Johanna’s intense if mostly silent presence, “the Indian who lives in my attic” as Violet describes her. But that’s a quibble with an otherwise excellent production. August: Osage County is a gem of a season début for Drake and the Provincetown Theater.