‘August: Osage County’ at The Keegan Theatre by David Friscic

Like a modern day variant of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Tracy Letts’ superb sprawling epic of familial heart break and destruction – August: Osage County propels us into a world that is alternately tragic, sardonic, witty, and disturbing. The Keegan Theatre is presenting a beautifully crafted production of Tracy Letts’ lengthy but extremely involving play under the taut direction of Mark A. Rhea. The intimacy of the Church Street Theater is the perfect physical space to add a touch of claustrophobia to a play that is already a veritable hot house of emotions.

Rena Cherry Brown (Violet Weston). Photo by Cameron Whitman.

The play takes place over the course of several weeks in August inside the three-story home of Beverly and Violet Weston outside of Pawhuska, Oklahoma and it is in this plains milieu that this Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning play takes place. Playwright Letts unleashes torrents of recrimination and hatred in the large and feuding Weston family and his timeless message seems to be that secrets, anger and remorse pass all too swiftly from generation to generation. To give the plot twists and turns away would be a disservice if you have never seen this intricately plotted and multi-layered play.

Running over three and a half hours, the play demands patience – but the rewards pay off especially in the strong ensemble acting of this talented cast and in the continually sharp and surprising writing by Letts. Especially well-acted and flawlessly performed are the post-funeral dinner scene, the opening scene of act two wherein Violet rages with recrimination against her dead husband, and a powerful and heart-wrenching scene in Act Three that brings to light some very dirty family secrets.

Ably abetted by the stellar lighting design by Megan Thrift and the meticulous, atmospheric set design by Stefan Gibson, this is one of the most well-designed shows I have seen. Every square inch of the Church Street Theater is utilized to convey the distinct areas and rooms of the Weston’s country home; and especially effective are the multiple scenes that play out at the same time in different corners of the set. The sound design by Jake Null is wonderfully quirky and appropriately psychologically unsettling in its effects. .

Violet Weston, the acid-tongued gorgon-like, pill-popping matriarch of the family is portrayed, with appropriate bile and sarcastic humor by Rena Cherry Brown and it’s a tour-de-force performance. You cannot take your eyes off of Brown, so natural and authentic is her every gesture and inflection. Brown totally inhabits her character to the point that you feel she is no longer acting. From her slurred speech to her weary gestures and back to her insinuating gradations of tone, it is the type of acting that Laurette Taylor or Eleanor Duse were known for —there are no artifice or tricks in any of her acting choices.

foreground- Rena Cherry Brown (Violet Weston), with (L-R) Lyndsay Rini (Jean Fordham), Shadia Hafiz (Johnna Monevata ), Colin Smith (Bill Fordham), Susan Marie Rhea (Barbara Fordham), and Eric Lucas (Sheriff Deon Gilbeau). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

I would go back and see this production in a minute simply to see Brown’s performance again. Brown is sure to win every possible award for this transcendent performance. She transitions from cruelty to humor to self-effacement with the most effortless ease and grace.

As mentioned already, this is a true ensemble effort and everyone in this cast of thirteen works to add their own distinctive acting choices to this bubbling cauldron of family strife. Particularly striking are Charlie Abel (Steve Heidebrecht), the boyfriend with a wandering eye. Lyndsay Rini (teenager Jean Fordham) hits just the right note of innocence and callous attitude. Shadia Hafiz (the Indian Woman Johnna) captures the attention of the audience with a stoic physical grace and maternal dignity. In the important roles of Barbara Fordham and Mattie Fae Aiken, Susan Marie Rhea and Kerry Waters Lucas also have some fine moments.

The comic touches of this play were never fully apparent in the New York production but are fully understood and thrashed out here – reminiscent of Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart – but more fully dark and tragic in tone. Director Rhea seems to understand that the humorous aspects of this play need to be developed so that there is a full emotional scope brought to the proceedings. The tragic and bitter components of the play are more fully felt when set against the humor.

When I saw this play presented with its original cast in New York City, I predicted it would win the Pulitzer Prize and the next day it, indeed, did win this prestigious honor. The Keegan Theatre is presenting a production of this play that is nothing short of inspired.

(L-R): Charlie Abel, Lyndsay Rini, and Karen Novack. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L-R): Charlie Abel (Steve Heidebrecht), Lyndsay Rini (Jean Fordham), and Karen Novack (Karen Weston). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

August: Osage County plays through September 2, 2012 at Church Street Theater – 1742 Church Street NW, in Washington, DC. Tickets are available at the Box Office at (202) 265-3767, or you can purchase them online.

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