“August: Osage County” – ASU Gammage

This review aired on KBAQ January 7, 2010


Broadway Across America – Arizona, ASU Gammage
Tempe, AZ

Playwright Tracy Letts’ brilliant “August: Osage County” dissects with lots of humor the wildly dysfunctional Westons, a rural Oklahoma family. In 2008, Broadway bestowed it the best play Tony and it won a Pulitzer Prize for drama. The show finally reached the Valley this week at ASU Gammage in a touring production that, while good, lacks the grand radiance of the original Broadway staging.

The problem is the cast. “August’s” original ensemble worked with it from its birth at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company. They became the Weston’s, handling the play’s maudlin parts as effectively as the sharp comedy Letts uses to examine this family. The touring cast never convinces us they are these people. This fact is especially true in the first act where we meet the characters and get ready for the ribald hostilities that spin out later. By the second act, the cast begins to gel as they more convincingly play off one another with a family’s ease and familiarity.

Estelle Parsons plays family matriarch, Violet. In the first act even this great actress struggles as she relies on mannerisms and posturing to suggest this character’s weird idiosyncrasies. Violet is an addicted, pill popping crazy who rambles but is always the family head. Beyond the mood-altering drugs, Violet is a chain-smoking mouth cancer victim who guzzles booze. It takes Parsons the first act to settle into Violet. By the second act, she sparks and, as the play’s comedy emerges, she has several high points. In her abbreviated last act appearances, she soars even higher as her three crazy daughters, Barbara, Karen, and Ivy, try but never take control of the family.

Each daughters’ problems rise during the family’s gathering after their father’s disappearance and suicide. The women have unusual relationships with men and Barbara’s daughter, Jean, follows in the family’s bizarre footsteps. Throw in Violet’s peculiar sister and the mayhem explodes but Letts writes with such insight and includes so much raucous comedy that the play becomes a fascinatingly amusing character study.

Only Shannon Cochran’s Barbara, the oldest daughter, gets the character’s wackiness and forcefulness perfect. Weakest of this cast is Emily Kinney’s Jean, their daughter. The pot-smoking loony lacks the original’s sass, spunk, and spark and Jean never stands out here. The men aren’t anything distinctive.

“August” runs over three hours but Anna D. Shapiro’s thoughtful staging makes the family’s stupidity seems plausible as it whirls by. The touring show’s sound system and ASU Gammage’s inhospitable acoustics make the first act especially challenging to understand but later it gets more comprehensible.

“August: Osage County” is a dazzling play but the touring company, while good, lacks the sharp brilliance that distinguished the original Broadway version. It continues through Sunday, January 10. For tickets, call the Ticketmaster box office at 800-982-2787 or order online at www.asugammage.com.

Grade: B