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August: Osage County

Steppenwolf Theatre Company has assembled an excellent ensemble cast for Tracy Letts' superb new family drama. logo
Amy Morton and Deanna Dunagan
in August: Osage County
(© Joan Marcus)
Clocking in at three hours and twenty minutes, Tracy Letts' superb new play, August: Osage County, is not exactly a light evening in the theater. It is, however, richly rewarding. Steppenwolf Theatre Company has assembled an excellent ensemble cast -- nearly all of whom originated their roles in the work's acclaimed Chicago run -- under the sharp and incisive direction of Anna D. Shapiro.

Following the disappearance of patriarch Beverly Weston (Dennis Letts), his relatives descend upon the family household in rural Oklahoma to see each other through this crisis, re-opening old wounds or gouging out new ones in the process. Beverly's wife Violet (Deanna Dunagan) would be in charge if it weren't for the amount of pills she takes, ostensibly for the pain caused by her mouth cancer. Eldest daughter Barbara (Amy Morton) takes up the burden of responsibility, even though her marriage to husband Bill (Jeff Perry) is falling apart, and her teenage daughter Jean (Madeleine Martin) is retreating from her fractured homelife by smoking marijuana.

Also on hand are Barbara's two sisters, Ivy (Sally Murphy) and Karen (Mariann Mayberry), who brings along her fiancé, Steve (Brian Kerwin); Violet's sister Mattie Fae (Rondi Reed), her husband Charlie (Francis Guinan), and their son Little Charles (Ian Barford); and newly hired housekeeper Johnna (Kimberly Guerrero), who is of Cheyenne heritage, and whom Violet dismissively refers to as the Indian who lives in her attic. Rounding out the large cast of characters is Sheriff Deon Gilbeau (Troy West), who shares a romantic history with Barbara.

Over the course of the three-act drama, a slew of family secrets come to light -- including adultery, incest, abuse, illness, and more. In lesser hands, this might come across as overly melodramatic. However, Letts has presented uncompromising portraits of flawed human beings who are bound together by blood, if not necessarily by love or affection. When Barbara and Karen invoke their shared sisterhood as a reason why Ivy should not have kept a particular piece of information hidden from them, Ivy responds quite matter-of-factly, "I don't feel that connection very keenly."

Letts' dialogue is top-notch, showcasing a good sense of rhythm, a penchant for dark humor, and some great one-liners. More importantly, he makes all of his characters and their interactions with one another believable. They're not always likable, but nearly all of them come across as sympathetic at one point or another.

While the entire cast does terrific work, special praise should be reserved for Dunagan's acerbic Violet. A dinner table scene in which she cruelly lashes out at her children is both terrifying and hilarious. Even at her most lucid, Violet possesses a dangerous unpredictability, and the devastating revelation she unfolds at the end of the play elicits gasps from the audience. Morton is just as strong of a presence, and the battle of wills in which Barbara engages with Violet is the backbone of the play. The actress effectively conveys Barbara's hard-edged determination, while also revealing the character's doubts, fears, and misjudgments.

The Westons' three-story home is nicely rendered in Todd Rosenthal's scenic design, which displays the outer frame of the house while exposing its finely detailed interior. Ana Kuzmanic's costumes help to establish the personalities of their wearers, from Uncle Charlie's pink socks to the various suits and dresses each character sports for Beverly's funeral.

There have already been several comparisons made between August: Osage County and Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. Certainly, both works are dysfunctional family dramas with a drug addict mother and an alcoholic father, and have lengthy running times. However, Letts' playwriting voice is distinctly different from O'Neill's and should be judged -- and appreciated -- on its own numerous merits.

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