August: Osage County at Ordway Center for the Performing Arts

Estelle Parsons as Violet in August: Osage County - Photo credit Robert J. Saferstein

The setup of Tracy Letts‘s wonderful August: Osage County (at the Ordway, through March 21, is familiar: the family patriarch has died under mysterious circumstances and his three daughters, the “agitated Weston sisters”, have arrived at the family manse in rural Oklahoma with their on-the-rocks marriages, their predatory fiancés, their marijuana-smoking daughters. They’re here to bury Dad, eat a funeral meal, drink copious amounts of bourbon – and to talk, talk into the wee hours, rehashing the past, spinning confused dreams for the future, trying to make some kind of tentative peace with their gloriously dysfunctional family. Presiding over this mess is Violet Weston, the drug-addled matriarch, cigarette ashes dropping onto the carpet, quasi-incoherent but occasionally turning on her brood with breath-taking viciousness and clarity.

Aren’t there, oh, five or six thousand plays on this theme? Living room dramas, with characters drinking heavily and talking endlessly, static, past-tensey and, let’s face it, dull. Granted, the dark humor of this play, its emphasis on sexual and druggy nastiness does rather set it apart. Still, I’ll confess that early on I glanced at my watch and wondered: three and a half hours?

But then – and it happened quickly – the acting grabbed me. Wow. It’s a chicken-and-egg question: which comes first, masterful writing or astonishing acting? Who cares; all I know is that I sat mesmerized for three and a half hours and would have sat happily for another three.  August: Osage County is the kind of play that Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater does better than anyone. Slightly old-fashioned, maybe, but it generates a genuinely incandescent glory.

How can I discuss the marvelous 13 person ensemble in the limited space assigned me by Estelle Parsons‘ name appears in larger program type than the other actors, so I guess I should talk about her: she’s great. Shuffling around with a stupefied grin (“these blue pills are my best friends in the world”) that hides a cynicism and a scary-fierce will to survive. Similarly terrific are her daughters, Angelica Torn, Amy Warren and, especially, Shannon Cochran (I’m in charge now!”). Laurence Lau as Karen’s dumb-but-creepy intended is fabulous, and I adored DeLanna Studi as the new maid. She and Ms. Parsons give us a gorgeous ending. Everyone amazes; enough said.

I know, the Ordway isn’t the best venue for a straight play and this one only runs for a week, but how often do we have an opportunity to see something with this kind of unique intensity? Go see it.

Highly recommended.

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