August: Osage County

In outline, Tracy Letts's August: Osage County sounds rather derivative. It's an intense family drama featuring a frightening, drug-addled mother, reminiscent of an O'Neill character. It'll even remind you of Lear when, after their father's death, three adult daughters argue about which one was the old man's favorite.

But Letts makes this familiar territory indisputably his own. His writing is funny, painful and honest, filled with insights both large and small. This is a tremendous play that gets a powerful production from its Alley cast and crew.

The story is complex enough to occupy 13 actors, but simple enough to boil down to a sentence: After a father's suicide, a rather fractured family convenes back home for his funeral. The play opens with the still-alive father, Beverly Weston (Charles Krohn), interviewing a young Native American woman (Sarah Gay) for a housekeeper position. The job mostly consists of tending to Weston's wife, Violet (Jennifer Harmon).

We quickly learn why Violet needs a keeper — and also why Beverly is on the verge of ending his life. Addicted to all kinds of pills, Violet is a savage, ferocious woman — you laugh at her nervously.

The suicide comes suddenly, then the family assembles for the funeral. Oldest daughter Barbara (Josie de Guzman) is trying to keep up appearances, but her marriage to Bill (Jeffrey Bean) is near its end. Youngest daughter Karen (Elizabeth Bunch) is determined to marry Steve (James Black), despite his amusingly shady character. Middle daughter Ivy (Eva Kaminsky) is the one sibling who has spent her entire life in lonesome Osage County, Oklahoma, and with her father now dead she's determined to finally start living her own life.

What's refreshing — and comic — here is that the family makes little pretense of being perfect. Thanks to mother Violet, who is simply a tremendous piece of work, the gloves come off early and stay off, most memorably at the after-funeral meal. When Violet tears into everyone at the table, one after another, the effect is both funny and explosive. After enough goading, her daughters respond in kind — even the rather passive Barbara, who, by the time the meal is finished, is bellowing, "I'm in charge now!"

The play builds inexorably, from one confrontation and revelation to the next. Letts makes a misstep at the end, when the Native American housekeeper behaves with noble abnegation. But so much of the play works spectacularly well that it's easy to forgive a minor flaw.

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David Theis
Contact: David Theis