Admit it. There are skeletons in the closets of every family.
In the world Tracy Letts created for his prize-winning play AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, the skeletons are just bigger than others. Some of them are yanked out of the closet for shock value. Others are kept hidden from view. Still others walk around in plain sight.
The parade of dysfunction on display in AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY drew the attention of the theatre world when it premiered in Chicago in 2007. Once the dark comedy hit Broadway, it took the Tony Award for best play and a Pulitzer Prize for drama.
The play is written in the tradition of such iconic plays as LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT and WHO’S AFRAID OF Virginia Woolf? It achieves an almost poetic vulgarity and mines scathing humor from the darkest corners of a family’s despair.
A play of such scope and depth requires an expert director who is able to help the actors bring truth to the characters and the three-hour-plus story they have to tell. The actors also have to be both a powerhouse ensemble and skilled as individual performers to carry off the epic emotions called for in the script.
Fortunately the Keegan Theatre has the director and The Acting Company to serve the play and demonstrate what a masterpiece AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY really is.
As Hollywood plans a film version of the play, I am convinced that I really don’t need to rush out to see the movie once it is released. (That’s with all due respect to Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, proposed film cast members.) Having just experienced the play in Keegan’s magnificent production, the idea of sitting in a movie theatre telling the same story just seems wrong.
Director Mark A. Rhea has assembled a group of actors who are able to bring to the stage both nuances and grand moments of theatrical showmanship. Assisted by the brilliant set design of Stefan Gibson, which fully utilizes the tight Church Street Theatre space, Rhea takes the world playwright Tracy Letts created on the page and puts the audience right up against the dirty walls and covered windows of the Weston’s nearly dilapidated home.
And then we meet the skeletons.
In a house of crooked paintings, overflowing ashtrays and buried secrets, Beverley Weston is the father of three grown daughters. He is a former poet and a steady alcoholic and the audience first encounters him waxing poetically as he hires a Native American woman to cook and clean. Veteran actor Stan Shulman – one of the Keegan’s founders – brings a weary charm to his brief but haunting appearance.
The meat of the play unfolds after Beverly has disappeared, which leads the local authorities to discover his death. His presence is still very much felt, up until the final, chilling moments of the third act. (Sorry, no spoilers here.)
The daughters all return home to deal with their father’s disappearance and the aftermath of his death, bringing with them spouse, child, boyfriend, and the like. Each daughter handles the fraught situation in different ways, with varying degrees of success.
Quiet and dutiful Ivy stayed the closest to home and is the first to arrive. The middle sister, Ivy is not a showy character and Belen Pifel brings understated truth to the role.
Returning from Florida, we learn that baby sister Karen has tried many different avenues in her unsuccessful desire to be happy. Karen has a romantic side, but seems blinded to the ugliness that is closest to her. Karen Novack is adept at bringing out the different shades of the wounded youngest sister.
Tough and forceful, even while dealing with her own troubled marriage and teen-aged daughter, oldest sister Barbara comes home to take charge. Barbara is the alpha-female of her sisters, and is a role Susan Marie Rhea was born to play. Ms. Rhea is blessed with a sharp focus, husky voice and riveting stage presence that transfers into a strong central performance.