Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Thursday, August 13, 2009

August: Osage County at the Curran Theatre

August: Osage County opens with the patriarch of the Weston family drinking with his new hired help, Johnna. When the lights come up, he embarks on a very long rant that tells the audience everything it needs to know about this particular man, Beverly. It is too long, really, and there is almost no movement during the entire scene.

It is at this point you could feel the whole audience beginning to worry. They knew this play lasts three hours and twenty minutes. If this was what those three hours were going to be like, they wouldn't make it past first intermission.

But we all did. And past second intermission, too. Why? Because this is family drama at its most extreme. Melodrama, really, but still living in a thoroughly realist environment. The notion that all of this misfortune and shock and surprise could befall a single family on the Plains in three weeks is preposterous, but we buy it, because it's engrossing. We buy it because it's gutsy, daring and makes interesting choices.

That man from the first scene is never seen after it, hence his longwinded monologue. He disappears into the night, never to be heard from again. The whole family convenes at their Oklahoma house to deal with the fallout. There's Violet, his pill-popping wife with a mean streak; her sister Mattie Fae and her husband Charlie, as well as their son, who at 37 is still demeaned with the nickname "Little Charles"; and Bev and Vi's three daughters (and significant others), Barb, Karen and Ivy. Throw in a pot-smoking, maladjusted 14-year-old, a little sexual harassment, a lot of gasp-inducing surprises and the funniest pre-dinner prayers you've ever heard, and you've got August: Osage County.

For all the surprises, only the last one was really unpredictable. But the knowledge that these catastrophic revelations were coming only built up tension and suspense. The action is fast-paced, yet the play feels like an intrusion into the everyday lives of this supremely screwed-up family.

I know a lot of people left Steppenwolf in Chicago and the Imperial Theater in New York--and will leave the Curran--saying that they saw their own family on that stage. Really? What does it say about this country that everyone can leave that theatre feeling connected to these hopeless and truly demented characters? Maybe that was the point. I didn't see my family on that stage. And I'm glad for it. What I saw was something like the Ghost of Christmas Future--a portentous omen of what could happen if we're not careful and not nice to those whose blood we share. But whether the story strikes you as a warning or as a reflection of reality, it shows all of us something that, for all its extremity, could become real. Which means it is a great piece of art.

The set's a marvel, and it gives the actors a lot of room to play. And play they do. This is high caliber, high-stakes acting. It is visceral and switches from the comedic to the tragic on a dime, with the masterful strokes of Tracy Letts. The pendulum swing he has created is not easy to make realistic, and he does. It is also not easy to act, and the actors do. There were moments of disjointedness--reactions that came too quickly to be real, where transitions didn't exist and the audience was left questioning where this particular outburst was coming from. This is only the second stop on the tour, and the performance I saw was only the second night in the Curran. A new space, a new location, and not enough time to figure out each other's timing probably account for the lack of fluidity. Give them a couple weeks here, and I'm sure those issues will be hammered out.

When those actors are on, though, there are definitely on. Highlights are Estelle Parsons as Violet, Shannon Cochran as Barb, Paul Vincent O'Connor as the elder Charlie, Jeff Still as Bill and Amy Warren as Karen. They make the three hours and twenty minutes enjoyable.

August: Osage County plays at the Curran Theatre through Sept. 6th.
Photo of Shannon Cochran, Jeff Still & Estelle Parsons by Robert J. Saferstein.

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