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August: Osage County

Phylicia Rashad delivers a complex and riveting performance as the acerbic family matriarch of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

Phylicia Rashad in August: Osage County
(© Robert J. Saferstein)
The announcement that Phylicia Rashad would take over the lead role of Violet Weston in the Broadway production of August: Osage County, currently at the Music Box Theater, was initially met with a great deal of skepticism. Not only is she the only African-American actress cast member within this naturalistic family drama, but her well known television persona as the kindhearted Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show is the diametric opposite of the acerbic family matriarch of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning play. However, Rashad more than rises to the challenge of this demanding role, turning in a complex and riveting performance from start to finish.

There may be some momentary adjustment needed within the first act, as this is purely a case of color-blind casting that makes no attempt to accommodate the visual fact of the actor's race in her portrayal. But Rashad makes it easy, capturing the playwright's rich humor along with the tragic depths of the part. Violet is not an easy woman to like, but she is a joy to watch as she uses her wit and domineering personality to lay waste to the egos of those around her. And while she can blame part of this on the numerous pills she pops, she is at her most dangerous in her lucid moments, particularly at the end of the play.

Rashad has a different energy than either of her two predecessors in the role on Broadway. Deanna Dunagan, who won a Tony Award for her portrayal, was a high-octane spitfire, barreling down the stairs of set designer Todd Rosenthal's tri-level set. Rashad takes the steps much slower, although she dances just as manically to the Eric Clapton record playing on the stereo. Estelle Parsons -- who succeeded Dunagan and will be starring in the national tour that launches next month -- projected a surface sweetness that made the bilious remarks that came out of her mouth even more shocking. But there are no soft edges to Rashad's Violet. Instead, she exudes a hardness chiseled into her features from years of painful experiences, including the claw hammer story that Violet memorably relates in a pivotal Act Two dinner scene.

Tautly directed by Anna D. Shapiro, the play revolves around the Weston clan in rural Oklahoma, who reunite after the disappearance of patriarch Beverly (a pitch-perfect John Cullum), a once-renowned poet now wallowing in drink. In addition to Violet, the family includes the couple's three adult daughters, Barbara (Amy Morton), Ivy (Sally Murphy), and Karen (Mariann Mayberry); Barbara's estranged husband Bill (usually played by Frank Wood, but at the performance I attended covered by understudy Frank Deal) and 14-year-old daughter Jean (Anne Berkowitz); Violet's sister Mattie Fae (Elizabeth Ashley) with her husband Charlie (Guy Boyd) and son Little Charles (Michael Milligan); and Karen's fiancé, Steve (Brian Kerwin). Also on hand are newly hired live-in assistant Johnna (Kimberly Guerrero) and sheriff Deon (Troy West).

Many of the actors are original cast members who have either been with the show from the start, or have left and come back, which proves to be a plus. In particular, Morton remains as powerful as ever, and Murphy and Mayberry continue to keep their portrayals fresh and emotionally grounded. Of the newer additions, Ashley is absolutely wonderful as the overbearing Mattie Fae. She works well with Boyd and you instantly buy into the fact that they're a long-married couple, used to each other's quirks, but still annoyed by them. Milligan is endearing as the awkward Little Charles, and has great chemistry with Murphy's Ivy.

And then, of course, there's the play itself, which moves expertly from horrifying dramatic revelations to side-splitting humor with dizzying speed. It's a true modern masterpiece that deserves all of the acclaim that it's received.