In Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County, which is playing at 2nd Story Theatre through April 1, 2012, Lynne Collinson reveals the true nature of the monstrous matriarch Violet Weston, slowly and gently - as not to frighten us. The audience is reeled in, thinking that while Violet has addiction issues she appears to simply be a benign, if bellicose, pill-head.
August first opened at Steppenwolf Theater Company in the summer of 2007, made a transfer to Broadway later that fall, won tons of well-deserved awards, and launched a national tour that ran through 2010. I believe that 2nd Story’s production is the first New England regional production of the play; quite a coup for Artistic Director Ed Shea and this lucky cast.
Directed by Shea and set present-day on the hot, dusty plains of Oklahoma, the play opens as Violet’s husband of 30+ years, Beverly (Tom Roberts), is hiring a live-in housekeeper, a young Cherokee woman named Johnna (Kira Arnold). The interview takes place in the study of the once-tidy house which is now littered with books, as books matter more to Beverly than people do. By way of explaining the dynamic of the house Beverly simply sighs, “My wife takes pills, and I drink. That’s the bargain we’ve struck.” Days later, a caretaker for his wife installed, Beverly walks out of the house, without a word, never to return.
In the wake of their father’s disappearance, Violet’s three adult daughters (Joanne Fayan, Emily Lewis and Tanya Anderson Martin) rally around their mom, making a requisite pilgrimage back to the family home, accompanied by their own families for support - and one suspects as a buffer. The post-traumatic-stress is less than subtle, as we watch the women steel themselves against, as they also struggle to be nurturing to, their mother.
Violet is beyond bullshit that her comfortable slump toward pharmaceutical oblivion has been interrupted by her husband’s disappearance and the, as sudden, appearance of her extended family, which also includes her battering ram of a sister, Mattie Fae (Paula Faber), and Mattie Fae’s henpecked husband, Charlie (Vince Petronio). Violet doesn’t want real, substantive, familial support. She wants to be left alone with her friends Vicodin, Percocet, Valium and Darvon.
As Violet sees it, the only way she will get her life back to “normal” is if she drives everyone who loves her away. Her life’s mission clear, Violet relentlessly attacks the people who love her most, picking at her childrens' barely-healed psychological wounds - many decades old and originally inflicted by Violet herself.
Upon her arrival home, Violet’s oldest daughter Barbara declares to anyone who cares that she is in charge and battles endlessly (needlessly?) with her mother while the comic/tragic shrapnel flies. In one scene Fayan and Collinson are nose-to-nose over the dinner table and Fayan, full throat with spit flying, screams “Eat the fucking fish!”. It is a brilliant set up and line - expertly delivered by Fayan.
Letts has crafted this play to be so dense, that any one of the minor sub-plots or issues could easily be its own piece. These topics, meant mostly to round out characters, include addiction (2x), incest (2x), “Who is my real father?”, and divorce, among others. August is bitterly funny and equally uncomfortable for any of us who did not grow up with Ward and June Cleaver as our parents.
The cast is, without exception, strong. Collinson’s take on Violet, as noted above, begins more subtly than I expected, but it works well. Fayan is simply delightful as Barbara, even without a trace of Oklahoma in her performance. Paula Faber is perfectly cast as Mattie Fay and in 20 years I would love to see her play Violet. In their individually strong performances, Emily Lewis, Tanya Anderson Martin and Tom Roberts round out and present a cohesive immediate family. Kira Arnold is exactly right in her role, as well.
Trevor Elliot’s set design is intricate and he uses the theater’s limited space in interesting ways to create the three-story home. Ron Allen’s lighting design is mostly invisible, as it should be…with the exception of a brilliant moment noting the passage of days and night spent depressed and staying in bed.