Review: ‘August: Osage County’ by Providence Players of Fairfax

Providence Players of Fairfax presents Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County, winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best New Play. Michael Donahue directs a strong, searing ensemble in this production, which proves to be as riotous as it is intensely tragic. This is a show that will have you laughing through your tears.

The cast of Providence Players' production of 'August: Osage County.' Photo by Rob Cuevas.
The cast of Providence Players’ production of ‘August: Osage County.’ Photo by Rob Cuevas.

A stellar production team creates the ideal atmosphere for this piece. Set Designer and Construction Lead John Coscia uses multiple levels to create the typical interior of an American working-class home. Cluttered but comfortable, the scuffed, mismatched wooden furniture and sunken couch are familiar sights for a lot of people. However, once you look closer, the details become more insidious. Prescription pill and liquor bottles seem to be within reach from anywhere in the house, and the windows are papered and taped over. A beautiful, lit dollhouse sits offstage–a symbol of the idyllic nuclear family that seemingly taunts this family throughout the show. Lighting designer Dan Schrader sets a dim tone that is almost claustrophobic–when the characters continually complain about the relentless, baking heat throughout the show, you can almost feel it with them. The effect is uncomfortable, which, given the plotline that follows, is completely appropriate. Sound designers Chip and Jimmy Gertzog and John Smith use American sitcom songs in between scenes, breaching decades and ranging from the saccharine “Brady Bunch” to the moodier “Addams Family.” This is a nod towards American culture, and how our image of family has evolved throughout the years.

“Life is very long.” This T.S. Eliot quote kicks off the show, said in a drunken slur by Beverly Weston (Allen Flanigan). Once a praised poet himself, Weston rambles in a foolish way, but displays a high intellect while doing so (much like the complex character Frank on the hit show Shameless). He is interviewing a young Native American named Johnna Monevata (Lily Pond) for the position of live-in caretaker, though it becomes clear that this would be a daunting job to take on. As he slurs on, his wife Violet (Jayne L. Victor) staggers onto the scene, cigarette in hand and high as a kite. “My wife takes pills, and I drink,” Beverly states matter-of-factly, as Violet cusses up a storm while asking about the “Indian” in her house. In dire need of work, Johnna accepts the position…only to be faced with Beverly’s disappearance the very next day.

What follows is a riveting study of a highly dysfunctional family. The Westons’ daughters return home, each harboring a troubling secret of their own. Andra Whitt is Ivy; the shy, long-suffering sister who remained close to home and feels overburdened by her parents’ troubles. Mary Zuzik Andrechik is bubbly and naive as Karen, a fragile woman who seems to fall into trouble easily, and Beth Gilles-Whitehead is Barbara, the level-headed and obvious leader of the three, who brings her own family (and their problems) along with her. This time of high stress and tension turns explosive, unearthing past pain and resentments, and in turn, creating a whole new set of problems. Arguments turn into full-blown fights while Johnna silently works in their shadows, forgotten amongst the chaos of screaming and shattering dishes.

However, for as much anger there is onstage, there is just as much humor. The actors all do fantastic jobs with their characters, but Jayne L. Victor’s and Beth Gilles-Whitehead’s performances as Violet and Barbara will stay with you for a long time. Violet has a very quick wit, but she unfortunately uses it mainly to attack her family (“You’re about as sexy as a wet cardboard box!” is one of my favorite insults). She is as mean as a snake and antagonizes everyone around her–except Barbara, who is unwilling to let her mother break her. The dynamic between these two is a powerful, unnerving, and memorable one.

Beth Gilles-Whitehead as Barbara Fordham and Jayne L. Victor as Violet Weston in 'August: Osage County.' Photo by Chip Gertzog.
Beth Gilles-Whitehead as Barbara Fordham and Jayne L. Victor as Violet Weston in ‘August: Osage County.’ Photo by Chip Gertzog.

The first thing I heard while leaving the theater was someone saying, “This makes our family seem so normal!” This is about the best way to sum up the experience. Those suffering with severe family dysfunction will find comfort in knowing they’re not alone, while the luckier of us find relief. In both instances, there is a catharsis that is well worth the ticket price.

Warning: This play contains strong language and adult content.

Running Time: Approximately 3 hours, with two short intermissions.

August: Osage County, presented by the Providence Players of Fairfax,┬áplays through April 13, 2019, at The James Lee Community Center Theater–2855 Annandale Road, Falls Church, VA. Purchase your tickets online.

Deborah Davidson, Mattie Fay Aiken; Joshua Paul McCreary, Little Charles; David S. Rawlings, Steve Heidebrecht; Nora Rice, Jean Fordham; John Coscia, Charlie Aiken; Clint Bagwell, Bill Fordham; David Whitehead, Sheriff Gilbeau

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