Where would the theater be without dysfunctional families—particularly the American theater of the last century? The extended Weston family of Tracy Letts' August: Osage County, now at the Pittsburgh Playhouse is easily the sine qua non of this genre. And this galvanizing new staging of the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama once again proves to be thoroughly engrossing, edge-of-the-seat theater.
The work centers on a family that doesn't so much decay as explode when the patriarch, Beverly, suddenly vanishes. Soon, the entire clan has gathered and years of resentment and rage fueled by addiction, denial, sexual peccadilloes and long-buried secrets can't be contained. It is an epic play —more realistic than naturalistic — that acquires much of its power from its scale that puts it in the league of Miller, O'Neill and, yes, Euripides.
While neither softening nor diminishing the acid-etched comedy of the work, director John Shepard emphasizes the conflicts within each of the characters. It's the clear delineations of each of their struggles which gives this production both a sustained tension and a poignancy that allows the audience to be empathetic and richly entertained.
Over the course of the play, matriarch Violet Weston (Mary Rawson) lays emotional waste to virtually all of her family using her incisive knowledge of each one's vulnerabilities to assert her dominance. Rawson's performance is masterful, emphasizing the pain, anger, and fear of abandonment that lies beneath the aggressive surface, all the while trying to maintain a surface of the gentility she has acquired after her rough upbringing. She loves her children, we think, but resents them as well, coming more and more unhinged as she slides deeper into chemical dependency and isolation.
As Violet disintegrates, her oldest daughter Barbara (Kathleen Turco-Lyon) seizes control as the rest of the family flounders and her own life is falling apart. Her husband Bill (David Whalen) is leaving her for a younger woman and her daughter Jean (Courtney Neville) is a conflicted teen seeking refuge in pot and older men.
Turco-Lyon gives an incisive, nuanced portrait of a woman seeking, with slowly increasing desperation, to gain control of the chaos whirling around her. She seems to grow in stature as she ends the second act saying, "I'm running things now!" only to find herself unequal to the task. It is Barbara's realization that she is becoming her mother that ultimately drives her to save herself. Her last moments of self-awareness are largely silent but beautifully wrought.
The rest of cast is equally outstanding, most notably Sharon Brady as Violet's blowsy sister Mattie Fae, Weston Blakesly as her long-suffering husband Charlie, and Erika Cuenca as the housekeeper Johnna. Together, this wonderful ensemble creates a world that is harrowing, heartbreaking, and deeply affecting.