“August: Osage County” is often described as a “comedy-drama,” and while it clearly leans towards the latter, there are a good deal of laughs. No matter how dark things turn, playwright Tracy Letts provides his characters with witty insults and sardonic observations.
The Broadway production premiered in 2007 and the play won multiple awards, including the Tony for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts lead an all-star cast for the 2013 movie adaptation. The material plays better on the stage than the screen – it has a greater sense of immediacy.
The play takes place, unsurprisingly, in Osage County, during the month of August. Specifically, the large, old Weston house outside Pawhuska, Oklaholma.
Designer Grant Crowl and his crew have filled the SMCT stage with an elaborate, highly detailed set. There's a den with book-crammed shelves, a living room with a woven throw-covered couch and a TV nook with a lounge chair and vintage wallpaper. Decorative plates and family photos hang on the walls. There's even a second level to the set, showing the attic.
Once-renowned poet Beverly Weston (Gary Prober) interviews a young woman named Johnna (Maleah Rivera) for a position as housekeeper. Beverly explains some unusual conditions: his wife Violet (Sally Buchanan) has cancer. The long-married pair have an agreement not to bother each other about their respective addictions: alcohol for him and pills for her. Violet has covered all the windows and “doesn't believe in air conditioning.”
In an unsettling moment, Violet wanders on the scene under the effects of her pills, disoriented and speaking incoherently.
A few days later, Beverly has gone missing. Violet's family gathers to help her through the crisis, starting with her daughter Ivy (Lisa Marie Butz), her sister Mattie Fae (Maureen Staunton) and her brother-in-law Charlie (Dan Bullard).
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Violet's eldest daughter Barbara (Yvonne Duran) arrives from Boulder, Colorado with her husband Bill (Thomas Brown) and teenage daughter Jean (Alexis Morse). Looking around at the flat Oklahoma landscape, Barbara describes “the plains” as a condition as much as a place. (“I've got the plains,” she says.)
Tensions rise quickly in the oppressive August heat. Now clear-headed, Violet relentlessly criticizes her family -- “truth-telling,” she calls it. Buchanan carries a sense of power and menace as the matriarch. Duran's Barbara is strong enough to rival her. “I'm running things now!” she declares at one point. Rivera's Johnna provides a quiet, steadfast presence amid all the chaos.
Act Two throws more characters into the mix: Violet's youngest daughter, the hyper-cheerful Karen (Kelly Nichols), her sleazy fiancee Steve (Jonathan Staffel) and Mattie Fae's long-suffering son, Little Charles (Iain Freckleton). They also receive a visit from the sheriff (James Wyett) who happens to be Barbara's high school flame.
Under the direction of SMCT regular Stuart Wenger, each member of the large cast creates a distinctive character, and their emotions feel genuine.
A large chunk of Act Two focuses on the Westons gathering to share a meal. It's the kind of dinner people hope to avoid in real life, which is exactly the kind we want to see in a drama.
Whatever your last family gathering was like, the Westons are bound to make you feel better about it. Even rare moments of harmony erupt into arguments at the slightest provocation.
The play clocks in at around three hours including intermission. That's a long time to spend with a bickering family. However, there's constantly something happening to keep our interest – new arguments, or new secrets to reveal.