THEATER | “August: Osage County” at Park Square Theatre: “Bottom feeders. My favorite!”

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Finally! A Park Square Theatre production I can love with my whole, crooked heart. Tracy Letts’s Tony- and Pulitzer-Prize-winning hilarious dark family comedy August: Osage County at last gives the many great actors Park Square so regularly employs a big meaty script that’s great from start to finish, one they can dig into.

“You know this country always used to be a whorehouse. But at least it had promise.”

I’ve been pulling for Park Square for a couple of years now to get material that’s just as good as what their actors can deliver to an audience. Dead Man’s Cell Phone, The Last Seder, The Odyssey, and Panic are all recent examples of how the script part of the formula for truly magical theater was just a bit (or way) off. With August: Osage County, they’ve hit the jackpot.

“I can’t believe your world view is that dark.”
“You live in Florida.”

Or perhaps I should say, they’ve hit the mother lode (pardon the pun). Because August: Osage County is about family in the best and worst ways possible. August: Osage County is one of the few plays I’ve read recently that was actually fun to read from first page to last. I would have to force myself to put it down. Sometimes, I was so shocked by some jaw-dropping development, or crazy thing someone said, that I’d literally drop the script as if it had bitten me, then have to pick it up again. August: Osage County is a big, sprawling American tale of a family coming apart at the seams—and they do it in spectacular fashion.

“Thank you. That makes me feel better. Knowing you can lie.”

The challenging thing when talking about August: Osage County is that the whole plot is riddled with spoiler alerts. (I can’t even quote a lot of the best lines here because they’d give the game away.) The ground underneath this family’s feet shifts, radically, about every ten to fifteen minutes. Just when you think they don’t have another surprise up their sleeve—wow, boy do they.

“Thank god we can’t tell the future or we’d never get out of bed.”

Family patriarch Beverly Weston (Stephen D’Ambrose) hires Johnna Monevata (Cristina Florencia Castro), a young Native American woman, to be the live-in maid for the Oklahoma home he shares with his wife Violet (Barbara Kingsley). Beverly and Violet are still capable of doing the housework, but it’s getting in the way of time they think would be better spent on their respective addictions—Violet’s pills and Beverly’s drinking. One of their grown daughters, Ivy (Carolyn Pool), still lives nearby. When someone suddenly goes missing, the rest of the family and their significant others descend. And what a crew they are…

“You’re a good, decent, funny, wonderful woman and I love you, but you’re a pain in the ass.”

The Weston’s other two daughters are Barb (Virginia S. Burke) and Karen (Kate Eifrig). Barb has brought along her husband Bill (Peter Moore) and teenage pothead daughter Jean (Christian Barden), who is hitting puberty with a vengeance that isn’t going to do anybody any good. Barb and Bill have issues of their own between them which they’re trying to keep under wraps while everyone focuses on the main family crisis du jour.

“You’re a master of time and space, and I’m a spastic Pomeranian.”

Karen has brought along her newly minted fiancé Steve (Michael-Paul Levin), a high-powered business type who is still willing to set his work aside to be with Karen and her family when the situation calls for it. (And yes, Prince Charming is a little too good to be true.)

“I’m sorry. I wasn’t eavesdropping. I just froze.”

Violet’s brassy sister Mattie Fae (Karen Landry) has brought the men in her life as well – good-hearted, long-suffering husband Charlie (Chris Mulkey), and their perpetually disappointing but well-intentioned son Little Charles (though he’s in his late thirties at this point) (Charles Fraser). This branch of the family also has couple of monumental skeletons in their closet.

“You have to be smart to be complicated.”

The one remaining member of the cast: Deon Gilbeau (Terry Hempleman), who was Barb’s prom date once upon a time. These days, though, he’s the town sheriff. So when Deon shows up at your door, it’s probably bad news.

“Genocide always seems like such a good idea at the time.”

The cast is so perfect for the script, it’s almost not fair to every other production up against it on the theater calendar of events right now.

“Then real life takes over, ’cause it always does.”

Normally I don’t go in for a play with this kind of bleak world view, but the script is so hilarious and the characters so vivid that I can’t resist. Besides, though the circumstances are dire and the branches of this family tree are exceedingly twisted, every character knows what they need to do to survive. The hard part is that in order to survive, nearly everyone needs to get as far away from nearly everyone else in this family as humanly possible. They aren’t literal cannibals, but they’re certainly emotional ones. Director Leah Cooper’s production always strives to meet this bizarre, funny and deeply human script at its level, and when the best of this script meets the best of these actors, you couldn’t ask for better theater.

“I myself require very little personal attention. Thrive without it, in fact, sort of a human cactus.”

For instance, throughout the evening, the audience was gasping or “Ooohhh”-ing at some verbal jousting match between the characters. Everyone, even the seemingly quiet and unassuming Johnna, gets a little bit of applause for some zinger or other. There’s one sequence as the family is preparing for a big dinner together, where three or four conversations are taking place at exactly the same time. Not artfully skipping back and forth, but laid right on top of one another. Listening to it, you’d think the audience was about to collectively lose their minds. It was fantastic.

“Do me the courtesy of recognizing when I’m demeaning you.”

My theatergoing companion had a good point, though, when she said that this show is going to grow and change a lot from the beginning of the run to the end. There are so many moving parts in this thing, so many deeper depths to plumb beneath the prickly surface, they haven’t found the bottom of it yet. It’s only going to get richer with time. But don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty damn amazing right now. Act One’s a little more languid than I expected (though still a great introduction to this peculiar world and its inhabitants), but Acts Two and Three crackle along like gangbusters. (Yes, there are three acts, two intermissions. The thing runs over three hours but it rewards you handsomely for every minute you give it. Trust me.)

“This madhouse is my home.”

August: Osage County looks like a million bucks, too. I took one look at the big, rambling three story house onstage and thought “Michael Hoover” before I even opened my program. Sure enough, Hoover’s the go-to man for designing epic family homesteads. Not only do we get to see the front porch, the study, the living room, the dining room, the kitchen, the long perilous staircase, the second floor landing and the attic bedroom—the set promises still more rooms in the offstage world beyond our sight. It’s a home, transplanted to the Park Square proscenium.

“You think if you tether yourself to this place in mind only, you don’t need to actually appear.”

Properties designer Kirby Moore has populated the stage with everything needed to make it functional and lived in. Lighting designer Michael P. Kittel is clearly having a ball playing with the many levels (physical, chronological and emotional) of the production. Costume designer Annie Cady has everyone looking exactly like you’d expect this rumpled, rundown family to look. And Composer/sound designer Evan Middlesworth does an equally good job helping set and maintain the mood for our ears, reinforcing the physical reality with an aural one.

“You have to admire the purity of the survivor’s instinct.”

August: Osage County is the kind of production that renews my faith in theater. It’s just that good. Caffeinate up for act one, then sit back and enjoy the ride. Very highly recommended.

Coverage of issues and events that affect Central Corridor neighborhoods and communities is funded in part by a grant from Central Corridor Collaborative.

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