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Blackly Comedic Play Sheds New Light On Family Dysfunction

Claire Spera |
September 21, 2009 | 4:37 p.m. PDT


This is not one big, happy family. (Photo courtesy of Center Theatre Group.)

I'd heard the hype -- "August: Osage County," Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play about a dysfunctional Oklahoma family headed by a pill-popping matriarch, had become an unexpected overnight success. Originally staged by Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, the play moved to Broadway in late 2007. Now on tour, the 13-actor production features none of the original cast, although the 82-year-old Estelle Parsons as Violet Weston did perform the role on Broadway for almost a year. Would the play, transported to L.A.'s Ahmanson Theatre, live up to its reputation? 
"August" gives us an uncensored look at the Weston family, which in turn functions as a metaphor for American society. Relationships in every form--disgusting, sweet and strained-- abound: Sisters laugh and cry together; mothers and daughters scream at each other; the youngest daughter's perverted fiancée goes after Violet's 14-year-old granddaughter; and husbands and wives fight. At the center of it all is the brutally honest Violet, whose hurtful words reflect her own unhappy childhood. 
Parsons is so utterly convincing as the prescription-drug-addicted, manipulative mother that you forget you're even watching a play. Whenever Violet is onstage, guilt-tripping her three daughters, she commands our attention and obedience. Even though she's slowly losing her mind, a process that's heightened when her husband disappears and the entire family converges in the summer heat at the Oklahoma home, her presence is never diminished.  
The set, beautifully rendered by scenic designer Todd Rosenthal, mirrors the play's frankness. As all the dirty family laundry is laid out on the (dinner) table, the set, a three-story house cut down the center to reveal the inner workings of the Weston family, facilitates total access to the characters' lives.
The play seems to reach a kind of climax in the second act, when the entire family is gathered around the dinner table for the first time in years. As audience members, we're sucked into riding the roller coaster of emotions that plays out in the scene, from the hilarious to the sad. 
At the beginning of the dinner, the family is solemnly saying grace when the pedophile fiancée's cell phone goes off, interrupting the serious moment. And with Violet, there is no pretense of politeness; she speaks her mind, no matter if it makes her look racist, abusive or downright crazy. The act ends with the eldest daughter, Barbara (Shannon Cochran), screaming that she's taking charge of the family, a task that will prove impossible. 
Cochran's interpretation of Barbara's transformation in the final act is delicious to watch. She expertly channels the energy and tone both of Violet and the disappeared patriarch, Beverly Weston. Indeed, Barbara comes to represent a mix of her father and mother -- she takes up heavy smoking, drinking and cursing; and, try as she might, cannot seem to improve matters in the Weston home. One by one, each family member flees.
In the end, Violet winds up in the housekeeper's arms, repeating the phrase, "They're all gone," to which the maid replies, "This is the way it ends." And just like that, with a chilling conclusion, it's over. 
"August: Osage County" by Tracey Letts
Presented by Steppenwolf Theatre Company and Center Theatre Group
Ahmanson Theatre
135 N. Grand Ave. 
Through October 18
213-628-2772/$20 Hot Tix available  



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