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'August: Osage County' Is A Natural Tour De Force At The Theatricum Botanicum

Ryan David McRee |
June 26, 2015 | 2:47 p.m. PDT

Theater Editor

All is not harmonious in Osage County. However, at the beautiful Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga, theatre is one with the elements. An outdoor stage amidst a gorgeous backdrop of pine and bark, the venue is a peculiarly satisfying setting for eclectic styles of theatre. One might think that “August: Osage County,” a play whose action takes place nearly entirely indoors, might be an odd choice for an out-of-doors theatre, but those with a taste for the abstract and nonliteral can appreciate the sprawling openness it provides for a play. Although lacking a claustrophobic element that might be more appropriate for a traditional interpretation of Tracy Letts’s play, the Botanicum’s woodsy setting allows for a silent isolation that Angelenos nearer to the city will find eerie and melancholy in the context of the play. The natural darkness of an evening performance creates a dark abyss engulfing the home of the Weston family that no theatrical device can adequately imitate.

 Osage County" at the Theatricum Botanicum. Photo by Miriam Geer.
Osage County" at the Theatricum Botanicum. Photo by Miriam Geer.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning “August: Osage County” depicts the events immediately before, but mostly following the disappearance of Beverly Weston (Tim Halligan), the elderly patriarch of the long-scattered Weston family. He hires a young American Indian woman named Johanna (Jeanette Godoy) to look after his wife, Violet (Ellen Geer), who is constantly shaken to the foundations due to mouth cancer and a crippling addiction to prescription drugs. After he goes missing, Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae (Melora Marshall), her husband, Charlie (Alan Blumenfield), Violet’s daughters Ivy (Abby Craden) and Barbara (Susan Angelo), Barbara’s husband, Bill (Aaron Hendry), and their fourteen year-old daughter, Jean (Judy Durkin), all come to take care of the distressed Violet and help her handle the aftershocks and consequences of her husband’s disappearance. Old family tensions bubble above the surface, and things get heated to a boiling point as even more family members pile into an already dysfunctional and heated (literally and figuratively) home.

Although Tracy Letts’s beautiful use of language, metaphor and situational irony is enough to draw audiences to see this masterpiece of a play, this compelling and smart cast is an equally alluring reason to see this production. Under the direction of Mary Jo DuPrey, this tight ensemble soars and sinks to emotional heights and depth with dynamism, clarity and the darkest sense of humor. Every beat is a perfectly struck chord in an aesthetically moving composition, and every element of the production comes together beautifully. The scenic design complements the outdoor setting with grace and poetic understatement. Most notable is the archetypal “door to infinity” on the upstage center, through which all hopes and dreams could quickly evaporate into the night sky of a Midwestern flatland. 

Susan Angelo and Aaron Hendry. Photo by Miriam Geer.
Susan Angelo and Aaron Hendry. Photo by Miriam Geer.

Notable performances include Ellen Geer’s Violet, at once despicable and sympathetic as her needs to both embrace and push away her family have their day far too interchangeably, magnetic in both her attraction and repulsion. The burden of crumbling family hierarchy falls on the shoulders of Susan Angelo’s Barbara, who handles the trials of her newly forced responsibilities with wit, charm, and unhinged aggression. Although only in a brief prologue of a rather hefty play. Tim Halligan’s Beverly is remarkable enough of a performance to cast a long shadow over the unfolding events of the play as Beverly’s absence hangs on every last word of dialogue.

Through darkness, love, suffering, unquenchable resentment and the tragically human need for hope, this democratically talented cast hurls forth the truths and illusions that dominate American family life. The Theatricum Botanicum delivers this story in a fresh, innovative setting that wrangles the theatre back to where it should be—a community. This production may be one of the most pressing go-to events of the summer, and will be sure to render even the most diverse theatrical appetites entirely satiated.

"August: Osage County runs through Sept. 27th at Will Geer's Theatricum Botanicum (1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga). Tickets range from $29 to $39.50. For more information, please visit www.theatricum.com.

To contact Theater Editor Ryan David McRee, click here.

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