San Diego Theater Review: AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (Old Globe)

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by Tony Frankel on May 18, 2011

in Theater-Regional

HOT AUGUST PLAY NEEDS EVEN MORE HEAT

It was impossible not to have any expectations prior to The Old Globe’s production of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize and Tony© Award-winning three-act black comedy, August: Osage County. When a surreal amount of hype is bestowed on a new work, especially one where critics praise the playwright as the Eugene O’Neill of the 21st Century, a reviewer (who has yet to see the original or the dozens of recent regional productions) can only pray that this is so. While Letts’ monumental work about a dysfunctional (to put it mildly) Oklahoman family is titillating, shocking, fun, poetic, August - Osage County Photo 1and well worth a visit, August appears to be a perfect mimicry of O’Neill rather than a fresh new voice in the American Theatre. This by no means insinuates that the play does not achieve moments of astounding theatricality – it does. It is a sprawling, rhythmical, mesmerizing piece, but it seems that Letts has somehow infused the inventions of previous Greats, such as Greek Drama (tragic flaw, reversal of fortune), Williams (the dysfunctional family that slowly reveals secrets over three acts in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof) and Chekhov (not only are there three sisters in August, but Letts has subsequently adapted Three Sisters for the stage). Even the title of the play was taken from a poem by Letts’ mentor, Howard Starks. Of course, time will tell, but modern audiences and critics may be so rightfully thirsting for a playwright-as-theatrical-deliverer that they have accidentally bestowed that honor on Mr. Letts. However, as we wait for the contemporary Messiah of drama (think Tony Kushner), August: Osage County proves to be no slouch, and Old Globe’s delicately directed and impressively designed production will most certainly please even the most discerning of theatergoers.

One of the most astounding elements is Letts’ ability to craft thirteen distinct characters, most of whom are capable of delivering sneering, sarcastic ripostes; the dialogue is rich in delightful nastiness and the story is a shocking turn of events, enough to elicit “oohs” and “aahs” from the audience. The characters themselves are so believable that attendees will either relate to them or be relieved that their own family was not so crazy.

August: Osage County at the Old Globe

The shenanigans begin when patriarch Beverly Weston (a soft-spoken Robert Foxworth) disappears after telling his new live-in housekeeper, Johnna (Kimberly Guerrero, originator of the role), that he can no longer handle the demands of his pill-popping wife, Violet (a disturbing Lois Markle). The vanishment reunites Beverly and Violet’s three daughters: the eldest, Barbara (Angela Reed), who shows up with her philandering husband Bill (Joseph Adams) and pot-smoking, vegetarian daughter Jean (Ronete Levenson); the middle sister Ivy (Carla Harting), who is having an affair with her cousin Little Charles (Haynes Thigpen); and Karen (a stoic yet hyper Kelly McAndrew), who brings her fiancée Steve (Robert Maffia), who just happens to have his eye on 14 year-old Jean. Also in tow are Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Robin Pearson Rose) and her genteel husband Charlie (Guy Boyd of the Broadway production) – it is their son who plans on taking his girlfriend/cousin Ivy to New York.

August - Osage County Photo 3

You can imagine the number of mathematical possibilities which arise as this undomesticated crew is unleashed, but it’s difficult to assess why we don’t walk away from this smart production thoroughly shattered, as was the result for many on Broadway. Having witnessed many Broadway hits at the beginning and end of their runs (and the touring companies they spawned), it is fair to say that magic rarely accompanies subsequent casts. There is crackling electricity that comes with an original cast in a high-profile play that, sadly, is rarely repeated in future productions. You may be overcome watching Zero Mostel in Fiddler On The Roof, but what a difference when Harvey Fierstein appears in a revival (I’m still contemplating the request of a refund from the touring production). In the case of August, the matriarch Violet comes off as harmlessly creepy when she should be jaw-droppingly frightening, and daughter Barbara’s takeover of the family makes sense, but lacks urgency. In fact, all of the shocking disclosures have no more resonance than the dusty books of poetry lying about in Beverly’s den.

August: Osage County at the Old Globe

David Zinn’s tri-level set is simply breathtaking in its scope; it looks as if somebody had vivisected a life-sized decrepit dollhouse; every nook and cranny is filled with the detritus of a decaying family. Japhy Weideman’s design fills the stage with just enough light and shadow, as if the hot, August sun were trying to force its way into the manse. Being that some of the lines are intentionally mumbled, Fitz Patton could have revved up the sound a bit. Sam Gold has supplied subtle direction, which may have been apt on a smaller scale, but this gigantic production needs fireworks to make the belly of the beast come alive. This is no doubt a recommended, engaging and fascinating production – would that we had left the theatre fully devastated.

photos by Henry DiRocco

August: Osage County
Old Globe
ends on  June 12, 2011
for tickets, visit TheOldGlobe.org

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