Los Angeles Theater Review – August: Osage County starring
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE AHMANSON
by Harvey Perr
published September 11, 2009
August: Osage County
now playing in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson
through October 18
Great plays invite you in by degree. They reveal their secrets slowly and gradually and may even keep their
darker secrets at bay. They draw you in until you are so close to its people that you are inside them and the unrevealed secrets are within
you. Whether or not Tracy Letts’ prize-winning August: Osage County is a great play may be
arguable, but it is as beautifully imagined, brilliantly realized, finely-grained, and gorgeously written an American play as has come our way
in a long time. And it’s one of those plays that makes a lot of theater-goers know what it’s like to be in a theater again, luxuriating in the
comfort of taking pains, after too many years of feeling seriously short-changed by unresolved plays that seem longer at ninety minutes than
August does at three and a half hours.
But, instead of drawing you in, the cavernous Ahmanson Theatre
manages to allow the play to retreat from us. Start with Todd Rosenthal’s set, the framework of the Weston house in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.
Rosenthal has created a living thing which seems both sturdy and fragile, an embodiment of the people who live there or who have lived there. On the stage of the Ahmanson, it becomes a doll’s house, peopled by actors appearing in, well, a play.
What’s wrong with that, you might ask. It is a play. Yes, it’s a play, but it is not merely a theatrical presentation. You can’t keep a play
with a heart and mind at such a distance and expect to feel its pulse. And, from the beginning, Jon DeVries as Beverly Weston, the family
patriarch, sets the wrong tone. He is no wreck of a man, no shambles of a once-known poet, no man holding on by the skin of his teeth,
drinking himself into dull torpor, desperately finding ways to get through a loveless marriage with the drug-addicted Violet. The heat – which
makes him say that T.S. Eliot was wrong when he said that April was the cruelest month when it’s clearly August – doesn’t get to him, and the
talk of the Eliots, Tom and Viv, isn’t a portrait of his own marriage as well. What we have, instead, is an actor, juicily getting his mouth
around a stunning comic monologue. And he delivers. He has the audience in the palm of his hand.
And the loud laughter we hear is the license given the audience to react to this play as if it were the funniest damned thing since Hellzapoppin. The rollicking laughter of the boisterous audience makes every line a joke, every passing
truism a reason for extended applause, which adds, one might mention, fifteen to twenty minutes to a play
that is, if anything, a bit long. And it doesn’t bring us closer into the world we are meant to reside in.
It could be argued that this production has located the comedy in the play and that the
actors have discovered how to make those comic moments work with clockwork accuracy. In truth, the comedy was always there; it just seemed
more nuanced when it wasn’t screaming to be heard. But these may be the plaintive ruminations of someone who had such a memorable experience
the first time he came upon this play just prior to its Broadway opening that he would naturally want everyone to at least have the
semblance of a similar experience.
One just has to settle for the truth that there are different experiences for different audiences. And what
Los Angeles is getting, despite the fact that the Ahmanson is anything but an intimate house, is Anna D. Shapiro’s cinematically flowing,
eloquently grounded production, with a strong cast – particularly the women – that, in its best moments, and, above all, in its third and most
moving act, does more than hint at what makes this play occasionally arrive at greatness. And Estelle Parsons, who was working with a
different cast when I last saw the play (about a month before its Broadway closing), seems to be more at home with the new
cast, and has finally made Violet Weston her own. It is now a proud achievement, and sometimes
an amazing one, and, in terms of depth, a harrowing one. She needs no grand gesture to keep the play as quiet as it needs to be, and she
has the force to turn on its power by simply standing still. Parsons asks us to look at this woman’s soul by exposing it with both delicacy
and ferocity. This is first-class acting. This is one of those performances that one is fortunate to have seen.
There is something truly family-like about Violet and her sister Mattie Fay (played
with just the right amount of fussiness by Libby George), and the Weston daughters. When the three sisters relax together, there is a
Chekhovian feel to the play, something both elusive and firmly planted to the earth, that passes through them as they negotiate their own
lives. Shannon Cochran plays the eldest, Barbara, the one most devoted to her dead father and
most in combat with her pill-addled mother, and she has strength and toughness, but always, contained within, something a little jittery, a
little frightened. Ivy, the middle daughter, whose secret is about to give way to a even bigger one, is played with heart-stopping
simplicity by Angelica Torn. She brings an electric charge to the notion of plainness. And,
finally, Amy Warren brings to the part of Karen, the youngest and most wayward of the trio, a wonderful sense of self-involvement and, at
the same time, an open eagerness to please, and she demonstrates that they are not mutually exclusive. Among the men, Stephen Riley Key, as
Mattie Fae’s beleagured son, and Jeff Still, as Barbara’s estranged husband, make the most impact.
So, yes, there is a terrific amount of good stuff to be thrilled by. I blame the theater, not the play, as
the reason I never got caught up in the intricately-woven spider’s web that Tracy Letts has designed and created. Fortunately for us, the actors, for the most part, do seem to understand what Letts was
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com
all photos are by Robert J. Saperstein
read Harvey Perr's review of the original Broadway production of August: