Story: Beverly Weston, once a renowned poet but now a self-acknowledged alcoholic living mostly on his laurels, interviews a young Native American woman named Johnna for the position of cook and caregiver in his sprawling country manor 60 miles from Tulsa. His wife Violet is being treated for mouth cancer and Beverly needs someone to tend to Violet’s needs as well as essential household chores.
When Beverly disappears a few weeks later, Violet informs their three grown daughters of the situation. Ivy still lives nearby in Oklahoma, but Barbara is a college professor in Boulder, Colorado and Karen is a realtor in Florida. Barbara arrives home after an absence of several years with her estranged husband Bill, also a professor, and 14-year-old daughter Jean in tow. Violet’s sister Mattie Fae and her husband Charlie lend emotional support, too.
In the very early hours of the next morning, Sheriff Deon Gilbeau, a high school sweetheart of Barbara’s, arrives with terrible news for the family: Beverly’s body has been found and someone needs to identify it. A few days later, Karen shows up with her fiancé Steve, a slick and shady businessman. So does Mattie Fae and Charlie’s bumbling son, “Little” Charles.
The Westons once again share old stories and war wounds under one roof, if only temporarily. The good times, though, are outnumbered by bitter memories, scandalous behavior, and the incessant harping by the overbearing Violet and thick-headed Mattie Fae. Many in this wildly dysfunctional family, however, haven’t a clue just how off-kilter they really are. But they may soon find out.
Highlights: St. Louis Actors’ Studio brings its ambitious appetite to this tantalizing tale by Tracy Letts and devours the playwright’s piece de resistance with a ravenous hunger that leaves its audience skewered but sated after the frightening feast.
Other Info: Native Oklahoman Letts won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2008 as well as five Tony Awards including Best Play for this ferociously dark comedy that tears at the flesh of a family and leaves gaping wounds ripe for infection. Despite three and a half hours and three acts it is more exhilarating than exhausting, although the adjacent West End Grill and Pub offers an enticing oasis during intermissions.
August: Osage County, which takes its title from a poem by Howard Starks and ends with a quote from T.S. Eliot, is itself an epic elegy written on an expansive canvas that covers three generations and alludes to nefarious ancestors as well. The touring production that visited The Fox Theatre in 2010 featured an eye-popping set design of a three-story home that looked lived-in authentic and housed a memorable presentation.
What is wasn’t though, was intimate, something much more accessible at the cozy Gaslight Theater and achieved in this powerful and persuasive St. Louis Actors’ Studio rendition. Being so close to the stage gives one a claustrophobic feeling, squirming at the vicious verbal attacks that explode in Letts’ acidic dialogue.
Here, Patrick Huber’s set design is as much imagined as actual, with a room above the main performance space where Vi pops her pills and disappears into bouts of delirium when she isn’t castigating family members. It also doubles as Johnna’s living quarters, where Jean seeks refuge to smoke pot and share the sad news with the cook of her parents’ dissolving marriage.
The main stage utilizes a doorway for entrance into a dining and living area, with a foyer at stage left which serves for an occasional scene. Carla Landis Evans fills the quarters with sundry props to enhance the setting, which is lit by Dalton Robison. Evans’ costume design dresses players in clothing which represents their various characters and aligns with descriptions in Letts’ script.
Wayne Salomon directs these proceedings with a keen eye for placement of performers to accentuate more intensely dramatic scenes. He also keeps the pace steady and involving, relying wisely on his players’ ability to mine Letts’ scalding script to convey their characters’ feelings and philosophies.
Inhabited by 13 characters, August: Osage County truly is an ensemble work, although Kari Ely and Meghan Baker essentially share top billing as the vitriolic Violet and battle-weary Barbara, respectively. Ely veers convincingly between the drowsy doper and venomous vixen aspects of Vi’s personality, while Meghan Baker effectively displays a wide range of Barbara’s exposed emotions. Their scenes are highlighted by a burst of violence that rattles even this jaded clan.
Larry Dell as Beverly starts the evening off with a grand serenade to the patriarch’s poetic drive and alcoholic impulses, sharing the stage with Wendy Renee Farmer, who depicts Johnna as a voice of reason and a spiritual presence in a home lacking a moral foundation.
Kim Furlow finely displays the biting bombast of Mattie Fae, whose primary task seems to be an habitual attack on her well-meaning but ill-starred son “Little” Charles. Stephen Peirick etches an affecting portrayal of the clumsy “Little” Charles, while William Roth impressively delineates the decency and amiability of the convivial Charlie, who really seems to love his extended family.
Emily Baker expertly fills the role of Ivy, showing her remaining poised and suffering silently the snipings of her mother while also conveying the deep emotional waters under Ivy’s surface. Rachel Fenton does well conveying Karen’s vapid, self-centered and delusional personality as the youngest daughter focused on her impending marriage to the lecherous Steve. Drew Battles captures Steve’s creepy persona precisely, especially in a scene where Steve works on seducing Jean.
Bridgette Bassa uses her diminutive stature to good advantage in the role of the confused teen Jean, rolling her head and her eyes as any 14-year-old might while also showing Jean's vulnerability to Johnna. David Wassilak and GP Hunsaker do proper justice to the parts of Barbara’s disappearing husband Bill and her shy old flame, Sheriff Deon, respectively, adding to the wealth of character portrayals in this stellar production.
St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s rendition of August: Osage County is about as up close and personal as you’d want to get to a family such as the Westons, so real you can feel it coursing through your blood.
Play: August: Osage County
Company: St. Louis Actors’ Studio
Venue: Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle
Dates: April 20-23, 27-30
Tickets: $30-$35; contact 1-800-982-2787 or ticketmaster.com
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb