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A ferocious "County" at Actors' Theatre

A terrific production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play opens in the city.
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Actors' Theatre

here is a link to the theatre website. Shows on Thursday-Saturday


I’ve never been big on soap opera — the comas, faked scuba accidents, and love children aside, I just never believed that much damage could happen to one family. There has to be an upper boundary to what people can endure before they just, well, explode from the drama, no?

Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County proved me wrong in the best way. The show, which opened this past weekend at Actors’ Theatre, is a brilliant family epic that pulls off a magic trick of consistent detonations. It’s soap opera for people who can’t stand the stuff: contemporary, ferocious, and yet huge-hearted. The play won the Pulitzer and doesn’t need more praise from me; let me just say I was just in awe at the way the story spools and unspools. But the Actors’ Theatre production is in a tie for the best piece I’ve seen there (with another Fred Sebulske-directed show, last December’s outrageously well-executed Spring Awakening) and not to be missed.

The play’s broad 13-person cast showcases the city’s exceptional acting talent. Jean Reed Bahle plays the willowy, drug-addled matriarch Violet Weston, and her performance, by turns diffuse and hilarious and lacerating, was riveting. After her famed poet husband vanishes, the Westons gather in her Oklahoma manse and the implosion begins. Her three daughters, the meek Ivy (Michelle Urbane), shrill Barbara (Amy Osborn), and lovelorn Karen (Cassandra Caye), jockey for love and emotional pole position, but none walk away from the reunion unscathed. This sisterly dynamic is one of the real pleasures of the show, moving from playful and irritated to more vicious that you could ever imagine. Osborn is terrific as the unhappily married, now separated eldest daughter whose husband Bill (Steve Taber) awkwardly accompanies her home. Their fourteen year-old, pot-smoking kid Jean (Lizzie Sulkowski) is one of the genuine delights in a dark show, as she parries seriously uncomfortable material with precocious resilience. The entire second act (there are three, I think) is a post-funeral dinner and it’s a slow burn to a total bonfire. Caye’s wide-eyed ingenue doesn’t have a huge role here, but it is a flawless performance. It’s not surprising that she’s won several acting awards here in town and more to come, no doubt. I could keep going on — even minor characters are given rich moments of discovery or decency, and as an audience member, your empathy moves around unpredictably.

The set — a side-long, exploded view of the Weston family home — had been lovingly decorated and designed; it was the kind of place you actually want to move into. If I had one complaint, and I can’t tell if it’s a flaw of the script or the show, but the opening scene is perhaps the weakest. In it, we meet the patriarch Beverly (Paul Dreher), musing about the passage of time, his marriage, and poetry to the nearly-silent “listener” character Johnna (Lauren Greer). It might add up on a second viewing, but the portentous writing and creaking chair noise, along with somewhat muddied speechifying, made for a tedious introduction. My heart does go out to Johnna (Greer), who has about seven lines of dialogue in a three-hour plus show.  

Disclaimer: RUST, a play I wrote and performed in, was in this year’s season at Actors’ Theatre. 

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