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A CurtainUp Review
August: Osage County

With Additional Thoughts on the Original Cast's Arrival in London by Lizzie Loveridge . . .and the Ensemble Holding Down the Fort at Broadway's Music Box by Elyse Sommer
It's a damn fine day to tell the truth!.— Not everyone would agree with the high on pills Violet that a funeral dinner is the ideal time for serving up accusations and painful secrets.
August: Osage County
Deanna Dunagan as Violet Weston
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
Yes, "life is very long. . . "(to quote T.S. Elliott, via family patriarch Beverly Weston) and, yes, so is August: Osage County (as noted by our Chicago critic Larry Bommer). But long isn't a bad thing. A boring ninety-minute, intermissionless play can seem endless. But the more than three hours fly by in this terrific three acter by Tracy Letts, with its bakers' dozen of fully rounded, damaged characters portrayed by a group of the Chicago Steppenwolf Theatre Company's finest actors.

Unlike Letts' raunchy thrillers, Killer Joe and Bug, August: Osage County belongs to a long line of memorable plays about dysfunctional families whose members fight their weaknesses (booze, drugs, depression, adultery, guilt) and each other. Think Long Day's Journey into Night The Little Foxes, Crimes of the Heart, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Death of a Salesman. But expect a completely unique and distinctive addition to this genre.

The plot device that brings the Weston clan to Todd Rosenthal's exquisitely detailed three-story house outside Pawhuska, Oklaoma maybe almost too facile, but it works. Beverly Weston (Dennis Letts, the author's father) gets the first scene which prepares us for the familiar but forever shocking emotional baggage to be unpacked. In what amounts to a long monologue, Beverly interviews Johanna Monevata (Kimberly Guerrero), a young Indian woman, for a job as housekeeper for the ramshackle house and as caretaker for his pill-addicted, cancer stricken wife Violet (a riveting no-holds barred Deanna Dunagan).

The old-fashioned three-story dollhouse set can easily lull us into thinking we might be wrong to anticipate that Letts will roll out of a barrel full of Weston woes. But this is at best momentary. Even before that digressive opening scene interview is over, Violet Weston descends the circular staircase, a delicate looking woman whose bent-over walk is as painful to watch as it must feel. Pain and regret have given her tongue an extra sharp razor's edge (an ironic metaphor, given that it's mouth cancer she's suffering from).

So there we have the people at the top of the Weston family tree: a book loving erstwhile poet and teacher whose world is becoming like John Berryman's poem, "a place where I do not care to be anymore.". And so, he drinks, his wife takes pills, and their relationship is clearly on the skids. Unsurprisingly, their three daughters are the apples whose fall from this tree is too close to escape the rot at its root. Seeing that rot exposed is unfailingly absorbing and, remarkably and frequently, extremely funny.

Once the gentlemanly alcoholic Beverly has hired Johanna, sealed the bargain by giving her a book of poetry and goes missing, the rest of the clan arrives to stand by the ailing and at her wit's end Violet. First on scene is the unmarried middle daughter who lives nearby, 44-year-old Ivy (Sally Murphy). Though she apparently has a responsible job at the nearby college, she still suffers the slings and arrows of her mother's supposedly well-meaning, but mean spirited digs at her failure to attract a man.

Violet gives with one hand and takes with the other. ("You're the prettiest of my three girls but you always look like such a mope. . .your shoulders are slumped and your hair's all straight and you don't wear makeup. You look like a lesbian"). Her belief in makeup is hilariously unshakable ("The only woman who was pretty enough to go without makeup was Elizabeth Taylor and she wore a ton.") Actually, Ivy does have a man in her life —but that another dark secret to be unfolded.

Ivy's sisters, having fled this toxic nest, will arrive later; first Barbara Fordham (the superb Amy Morton), the oldest, from Colorado and last, Karen (Mariann Mayberry) the youngest, from Florida. Barbara's familial troubles are quickly unpacked—Bill (Jeff Perry), her husband of twenty-three years, is having an affair with one of his students and teen-aged daughter Jean (an amusingly bratty Madeleine Martin) is a pothead whose couch potato habits are hardly what one expects from the daughter of two college professors. This situation, like Barbara's menopausal hot flashes, is hardly helped by the crisis in the old homestead or Barbara's feelings for her mother ("I'm wishing my father was here. . .and my mother was the one who disappeared"). Sister Karen, is another relationship loser, but just as Barbara's world is coming apart, Karen has finally got things together; at least so it seems, except that her fiance (Brian Kerwin) turns out to be not quite the kind of man to insure a long and happy life together.

As with any old-fashioned kitchen sink drama, there are peripheral characters to add to the color and complications (which includes incest). I've already mentioned Johanna, the efficient but silent Indian girl, the one totally sane and steady person in this house who must surely be wondering why her forbears were too meek to allow these weak folks from taking their land. There's also Violet's vulgar sister, Mattie Fae Aiken (Rondi Reed making her deliciously brassy and detestable). Like Violet, she has a gift for tactless putdowns, especially of her long suffering husband , Charlie (Francis Guinan) and her meek and ineffective (at least when he's around her) adult son who's still called "Little" Charles (Ian Barford). And to end the suspense about Beverly's whereabouts, there's Sheriff Deon Gilbeau (a wonderful Gary Cooper-like Troy West) who happens to have been Barbara's high school beau.

While not violent like Letts's previous plays, and not really like the O'Neill and Williams plays it will be likened to because of its abundance of laughter inducing scenes (one of the funniest is Charlie awkwardly saying grace at a family dinner), there's no way August: Osage County can have a happy ending. All except Violet and Johanna exit this house of miscommunication and pentup resentments — their lives remaining realistically unassured of happier times to come. The luckiest and wisest one of them all is, you guessed it, the father.

Ultimately, bad news for the Westons, Fordhams and Aikens is good news for theater goers who appreciate a well-made, well-staged, well-acted and thoroughly engaging play. My crystal ball shows a Pulitzer looming in the distance.

With Additional Thoughts on the Original Cast's Arrival in London . . .and the Ensemble Holding Down the Fort on Broadway

AUGUST: Osage County
By Tracy Letts
Directed by Anna D. Shapiro
Cast: Ian Barford ("Little Charles" Atkins), Deanna Dunagan (Violet Weston), Kimberly Guerrero (Johnna Monevata), Francis Guinan (Charlie Aiken), Brian Kerwin (Steve Heidebrecht), Dennis Letts (Beverly Weston), Madelleine Martin (Jean Fordham), Mariann Mayberry (Karen Weston), Amy Morton (Barbara Fordham), Sally Murphy (Ivy Weston), Jeff Perry (Bill Fordham), Rondi Reed (Mattie Fae Aiken), Troy West (Sheriff Deon Gilbeau).
Sets by Todd Rosenthal
Costumes by Ana Kuzmanic
Lighting by Ann G. Wrightson
Sound by Richard Woodbury
Original Music by David Singer
Dramaturgy by Edward Sobel
Fight choreographer: Chuck Coyl
Dialect coach: Cecilie O'Reilly
Running time: 3 hours, 18 minutes, includes 2 intermission
Steppenwolf Theatre company at the Imperial Theatre, 245 West 45th Street, 212/239-6200
Fom 10/30/07; opening 12/04/07
Tuesday @ 7:30pm, Wednesday @ 2pm & 7:30pm, Thursday - Friday @ 7:30pm, Saturday @ 2pm & 8pm, Sunday @ 3pm.
Tickets $26.50 to $99.50; premium seats at $176.50.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at Dec. 2, 2007 matinee Closing performance 6/28/09 after 18 previews and 648 regular performances.

The Play Takes the Honours In London by Lizzie Loveridge
We had heard that August: Osage County was a hit on Broadway but we also know that the Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago pedigree was one which we ignore at our peril. In any event, we were blown away by this play, the magnificent performances, the strong female parts, the humour and intertwined with wit, real and believable tragedy of the kind that only a family can bring into painful relief. The principal actors who opened in New York have made the journey to London to the Lyttelton, the National Theatre's proscenium arch stage.

The magnificent Deanna Dunagan recreates the part of the once pretty mother overdosing on prescribed medication, whose vitriol towards her family is as cruel as it is penetrating. The click clack of her mules as she descends the wooden stair ensures full attention is given to her entrance. Violet is a bright woman who knows a lot more than the family give her credit for as she constantly surprises, them and us, with her revelatory aplomb. We also detest her for her outrageous statements about the impossibility of an older woman being attractive and her insistence on make-up as well as her corrosive comments to her middle child. No-one in the audience is convinced by her announcement that her husband intended to leave everything to her "but never got around to it legally!". The opening monologue is Beverley's only contribution to the play directly. He is compellingly played by Chelcie Ross with his long, thin ET like penetrating fingers. We didn't realise that he would be torn away from us, as he is from his family, just as we were warming to him with his analysis of his wife to Johnna (Kimberley Guerrero), the Native American housekeeper who can clean, cook and has the presence of mind to attack a sexually predatory guest with a frying pan. Rarely can a job interview have been so frank about what she can expect!

It may be that the British audience laugh in different places to our American cousins (this alone would make an interesting study) but I did notice that some lines were lost in laughter as the actors didn't pause. I can see the parallels with Eugene O'Neil but there is bitter sweet humour added to the mix. I felt an almost Chekhovian lightness of hand as the inevitability of the outcome for the three sisters comes to the surface. For the youngest Karen (Mariann Mayberry) self deceit that she has found happiness with Steve (Gary Cole), for the middle girl Ivy (Sally Murphy) a doomed love affair with a sad man, Little Charles (Ian Barford) and for the delightful Barbara (the exquisite Amy Morton) the realisation that her marriage is over as her husband (Jeff Perry) takes his mother in law's advice and finds a younger model. Rondi Reed as the vulgar Mattie Fae, Violet's less refined sister pulverises her son's self esteem with her painful put downs.

Some of the comedy lines may not be fully original but they fit into the play so well. The retort to being told you are not supposed to smoke, "Is anyone supposed to smoke?" allows a diffusion of the tension so that it can rebuild. I could watch a whole series based on the Westons if Tracy Letts would oblige or even the prequel which tells us how Beverley and Violet ended up in that marriage of despair! Londoners have only eight weeks to see this perfect play which I fully expect to win awards here. (Elyse Sommer's comments on the Ensemble Holding down the Fort at Broadway's Music Box follow the Production Notes below) —Lizzie Loveridge

Cast: Chelcie Ross, Deanna Dunagan, Amy Morton, Jeff Perry, Molly Ranson, Sally Murphy, Mariann Mayberry, Rondi Reed, Paul Vincent O'Connor, Ian Barford, Kimberley Guerrero, Gary Cole, Troy West
Director: Anna D Shapiro
Set Design: Todd Rosenthal
Costume Design: Ana Kuzmanic
Lighting Design: Ann G Wrightson
Sound Design: Richard Woodbury
Music: David Singer
Running Time: Three hours 20 minutes with two intervals.
A Steppenwolf Theatre Company Production
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 21st January 2008
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge on 28th November 2008 performance at the Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)

Notes on the Ensemble Holding down the Fort at Broadway's Music Box by Elyse Sommer
Estelle Parson
Estelle Parson as Violet Weston (Photo: Joan Marcus)
With August: Osage County opening in London, I decided to revisit the show in New York, to see how it was faring with it's much heralded cast. The original cast was great, but the current cast is a testament to the play's durabity as a powerful modern drama with an unfashionably large cast, 3 hours-plus run time and two intermissions. The bakers' dozen of characters Letts has created are a gift to actors and the current cast, like the one that launched the play, have made the most of that gift, especially those like Estelle Parsons, Johanna Day and Molly Reed who stepped into the shoes of multi-award winning predecessors like Deanna Dunnigan, Amy Morton and Rondi Reed.

Estelle Parsons has put her own stamp on the role of the monster mother — instead of painfully pulling herself up the steep steps of Todd Rosenthal's amazing 3-story dollhouse set, she lierally runs up and down. Though this emphasizes the false energy of the pills that are her diet staple, she nevertheless lets us see the pain that, as much as the pills, exacerbates the poison that has seeped into the entire Weston family dynamic. Anyone not knowing Parsons' real age would not guess that she's twenty years older than the sixty-year-old Violet the playwright envisioned when he wrote the script. Thus, as the play is a stellar addition to the dysfunctional family genre represented by great playwrights from Chekhov, to O'Neill, Miller and Albee, so the limber of mind and body Parsons gives living proof to the possibilities of a truly good old age.

Johanna Day is quite fine as Barbara, the eldest daughter's impact as the sister whose equilibrium collapses and turns bitter at dealing with her family's ever increasing turmoil, as well as the anguish at her own disintegrating marriage. As played by Frank Wood, the role of her philandering husband Bill, seems to be almost deeper than I recall. Madelein Martin remains devilishly bratty as their pot-smoking fourteen-year-old daughter Jean. The other holdover from the original cast is Brian Kerwin as Steve, the aptly sleazy, sure to disappoint fiance of the youngest daughter Karen (Amy Warren).

Like Parsons, Molly Regan looks nothing like Rondi Reed who created the role of Violet's sister Mattie Fae. But her pairing with Parsons makes for a fit that gives extra credibility to the family secret that neither the sisters or their husbands ever discussed —until now. Also wonderfully poignant are Robert Foxworth, as Mattie Fae's henpecked husband Charlie and Michael Milligan as Little Charlie, their timid underachieving son and middle sister Ivy's (Dee Pelletier) romantic interest.

The actor who initially handled the brief but pivotal appearance of the Weston patriarch was Tracy Letts' own dad, Dennis Letts, who tragically did not live to see his son awarded the Pulitzer. John Cullum, an actor I've never seen give anything less than an extraordinary performance, does not disappoint as the current Beverly Weston.

To sum up my re-visit, I'm happy to report, that while all doesn't exactly end well with the Weston family, all's well with the current ensemble portraying them. August: Osage County remains a stimulating, thoroughly satisfying evening of theater. Below is a list of who plays what role, with an * to indicate a holdover from the original cast:

Michael Milligan ("Little Charles" Atkins), Estelle Parson (Violet Weston), Samantha Ross (Johnna Monevata), Robert Foxwell(Charlie Aiken), *Brian Kerwin (Steve Heidebrecht), John Cullum (Beverly Weston), *Madeleine Martin (Jean Fordham), Amy Warren (Karen Weston), Johanna Day (Barbara Fordham), Dee Pelletier (Ivy Weston), Frank Woods (Bill Fordham), Molly Regan (Mattie Fae Aiken), Scott Jaecl (Sheriff Deon Gilbeau).

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