Wednesday, September 21, 2016

"August: Osage County"

August: Osage County
Tracy Letts

The Cast of "August: Osage County"
Without a doubt, the star of Marin Theatre Company’s daring, innovative production of the wildly popular, dark family comedy by Tracy Letts, August: Osage County, is J. B. Wilson’s set.  The multi-storied, multi-room weathered-wood and metal-framed skeleton with no solid walls enables lines from the script to take on greatly enhanced meanings – lines like “You know this house is falling apart.”  When the aging patriarch of the Weston family looks around in sweeping motion to point out “all the garbage we’ve acquired, our life’s work,” all we see is a house with nothing in it but its hollowed-out framing, a few wooden beds with no mattresses, and one massive table.  And it is that table that dominates everything, rising like a middle banister to two rickety staircases going up in steep incline, slanted so precariously that it appears it could flip any moment right on top of the near-by audience.  For a play that exposes in sordid details a dysfunctional family in its last stages of any semblance of being a family, the table where they gather says it all in terms of how warped their relationships really are.

The issue with this production’s star, the scenic design, is that it so dominates and calls attention to itself that time and again, it becomes a distraction, especially when coupled with the decisions made by Director Jasson Minadakis.  Because of the permeability of the many rooms and levels of this frame-only house, we often see the house’s multiple inhabitants and their slightest movements and mimes while also trying to focus on the main interaction of the moment.  Other times during certain altercations, chases, and conflicts, I found myself so fascinated how an actor is going to manipulate those steps without tripping and even at times so concerned about actors’ safety that I forgot to listen to the lines being delivered. 

With an Oklahoma drawl slow and dignified, the aging patriarch of the Weston family, Beverly (Will Marchetti), opens the play by quoting his favorite poet, T.S. Elliot, “Life is very long.”  As he interviews a local girl of Cherokee heritage, Johnna, to be a live-in housekeeper for the family (something his wife has no idea he is doing), he wryly admits, “My wife takes pills, and I drink – That’s the bargain we’ve struck.”  Later, he tells her in what turns out to be a foreboding of what is to come, “The place is not in such bad shape – not yet” (another line that causes a chuckle, given J.B. Wilson’s set).  Bad enough, however, that after this prologue, the play opens with Beverly’s having mysteriously disappeared, with all the immediate and extended family heading home to worry and console, soon to mourn, but mostly it turns out, to bicker and battle with full vigor and venom.

Violet Weston is the matriarch of this clan who pops pills almost as often as most people breathe.  The many pills she openly takes are at least partly consumed to relieve the burning in her mouth from recently diagnosed mouth cancer (a cruel joke of nature for a woman who emits from that same mouth every four-letter word and insult imaginable to anyone and everyone around her).  As Violet, Sherman Fracher jerks her head spasmodically and jawbones her oft-shouted words as she lashes out time and again in monstrous tirades at any and all her family members, often ending the bombing attacks by slumping into a defeated ball of tears and moans seeking those same members’ love and compassion for all her own woes.  When in her doped state, she barely remains vertical as she stumbles down the steps from her bedroom to a waiting, on-edge family below, all the time slurring words to the point of turning them into some unintelligible tongue that they or we can in no way understand.  When only in a mild state of numbness, her venom can strike at any moment, as in one family gathering around the dinner table when her victims await their individual, inevitable, verbal lashings as she proclaims, “I’m just truth-telling ... It’s time we had some truth around here.”  Ms. Fracher certainly gives a tour de force performance although I believe at times her jerky movements of hands, head, and body become so robotic and artificial-looking as to distract from the powerful lines of Letts’ script.

Three daughters/sisters gather in the family homestead to console their mother after their father has disappeared.  Each brings her own personal old and new issues, resentments, and secrets – all of which spill forth both in trickles and floods as the play’s three acts unfold.  Barbara, the first-born, has long escaped the Plains, has avoided the family as much as she can, and has come home with a professor-husband she is divorcing since he is shacking up with one of his college students.  Arwen Anderson reaches deep and discovers many subtle and not-so-subtle ways vividly to express the angst, anger, and, yes, disgust she so often experiences with everyone from her mother to her sisters to her husband and fourteen-year-old daughter.  She rises to larger-than-life proportions when she decides it is time to take over and do a “pill raid” in the house; and yet she collapses into a defeat of will and spirit when, in the end, she is abandoned by those closest to her. 

David Ari is Barbara’s cheating husband, Bill, who is overall a nice guy with a compassionate (if also wandering) heart but with also a temper that knows how to push his wife’s buttons as she pushes his.  Danielle Bowen is her weed-smoking daughter, Jean, who brings an adult edge and look to her teenage body and personality.  Jean also openly flirts with trouble as part of her own rebellion and confusion of the adult battles going on around her.

Sister Number Two is another Oklahoma escapee, Karen, who has arrived from Florida with a fiancé no one knows about or has met (a very slick and sleazy Peter Ruocco as Steve who is quite willing to break away from grace at the family table to answer his cell phone and also just happens to like weed and teenage girls).  Arriving with cheerleader fake moves and smiles, Joanne Lubeck’s Karen tries her hardest to be pleasing, perky, and pleasant as she works hard to convince everyone that she has found the perfect mate (no matter he has been married already three times).  Even after some very despicable behavior by this Steve leads to a quick exit by both, she shrugs it off saying, “He’s not perfect ... Like all the rest of us down here in the muck.”

Danielle Levin is the forty-four-year-old middle sister, Ivy, who has up to now remained in the same town as her parents but has mostly been ignored and ridiculed by her mother for not wearing make-up, not donning a dress, and not finding a husband.  Her portrayal of Ivy is the strongest among the three sisters, measured and under-played in a house full of huge displays of emotional outbursts.  Slow to join in the family feuding, she is carrying a big secret that is soon to cause its own bevy of fireworks as it spawns more long-hidden secrets coming to life. 

The family is rounded out in grand fashion by Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae, and by her husband, Charlie, and son, Little Charles; and the actors playing these parts give some of the best performances of Marin’s production.  Mattie Fae is a dyed red head who tends to talk incessantly in her Okie accent (usually with a glass of bourbon in hand), rarely taking time for a breath or to notice if anyone is actually listening.  When Anne Darragh is not being syrupy sweet with her flashing smile, her Mattie Fae interrupts, contradicts, and tenaciously insists that all others pay attention to her opinions, especially the viper attacks she makes about her grown son, Little Charles. 

Patrick Kelley Jones is the son still bearing “little” in his name, even though he is thirty-seven.  He is quiet and mostly off to himself amidst all the hubbub around him but also shows a kindness and generosity that contrasts big time to his mother and other relatives.  Matching him in overall heart and goodness is his father, Charlie (Robert Sicular), whose patience is tried by a wife who adores him but will not, for a reason soon to be revealed, show an ounce of kindness to their one and only son.

Watching all the family tantrums and crises-by-the-hour is the Native American housekeeper, Johanna, perched often in plain sight of the audience in her attic cubbyhole, far above all the downstairs melee.  Kathleen Pizzo plays the one person who others find will listen without outward judgment, who mostly watches eruptions pretending not to notice, but who is also willing to step in and take over when evil shows his very ugly head.  She who hears the elderly Beverly open the play with T.S. Elliot, closes the three-hour tale softly singing to a sobbing Violet another of the poet’s quotes, “This is the way the world ends.”

There is so much to be gained from every line of Tracy Letts’ script, including often much humor.  When Barbara says, “Thank God we don’t know the future ... we’d never get up,” how can we not shake out heads laughing seeing all that she and her family are dishing out at each other’s expense?  Her sister Ivy tells her at one point, after Barbara has been lamenting her life’s storyline, “I can’t believe you and your world view is that dark.”  Barbara blandly responds without a blink, “You live in Florida.”

Sometimes, however, the lines are lost as the director has chosen to have extended periods where family members talk over each other or in separate, simultaneous conversations (which is true to life but not helpful to the listening audience member).  Other times, the music chosen as part of Theodore J.H. Hulsker’s sound design is so intrusive, even during a scene change, that the last lines of the prior scene too quickly vanish as the mood/effects are lost.  Somewhat like the set itself, intentions are great in these production decisions; but the results sometimes are too distracting.

For someone who has never seen Tracy Letts’ play that racked up five Tonys in 2008, the production of August: Osage County playing now at Marin Theatre Company is a definite go-see, go be amazed, and go be enthralled.  For those who have seen other productions, nationally or locally produced, this version may or may not measure up totally, but it will certainly be a visual image that will never be forgotten.

Rating: 4 E

August: Osage County continues through October 9, 2016 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office Tuesday – Sunday, 12 -5 p.m.

Photos by Kevin Berne

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