A Grim But Scintillating ‘August Osage County’ Shines At Dramaworks

When a pair of kissing cousins are among the more well adjusted characters in a given play, you should probably know that you’re in some pretty grim territory. While I can imagine some theatregoers being put off by the dark subject matter of August: Osage County, which centers around a suspected suicide and delves into addiction, incest, and multiple instances of adultery, just to name a few, I can think of few other reasons that anyone would be dissatisfied with Palm Beach Dramaworks’ incredibly well-orchestrated production of this consummately entertaining play. 

To start the proceedings, the character Beverly, an aging poet in his sixties, plainly states, quoting TS Eliot: life is very long. Soon, we’re given some idea of why he might think so: he’s had to spend most of his married to Violet, an exceedingly harsh woman whose constant pill-popping is paralleled by his own consuming alcoholism. 

When Beverly proceeds to disappear, the entire extended family is gradually whipped into a frenzy as they fear for his whereabouts. First on the scene are the shy spinster Ivy, the one daughter of Bev and Violet’s who chose to stay close to home and watch over her aging parents, and Violet’s southern sister Mattie Fae and Fae’s good-natured if unsophisticated husband Charles. 

Coming from further away is Ivy’s sister Barbara, a college professor who returns with her husband Bill, also an academic, albeit one who happens to be sleeping with one of his students. Their fourteen year old daughter, Jean, is also in tow, and also seems to have inherited the family proclivity for substances, though for now she’s sticking to cigarettes and weed. In addition to the anchoring addicts described above, most everyone else can be seen to imbibe in at least a cocktail or two, especially as the situation’s stressors mount.

The increasing seriousness of matters also eventually calls for the arrival of Karen, a floundering and narcissistic third sister, and her slimeball of an older fiancé, Steve, who only add more ersatz ingredients to a pot of personalities that is bound to repeatedly boil over as tensions come to a breaking point. 

Along with everyone’s various addictions and affairs, including the aforementioned incestuous romance, sources of that tension include the favoritism Violet shows towards Barbara over the ostensibly more devoted Ivy, and the fact that Violet feels that not even this most “successful” of her children has achieved what all three should have given their material advantages, which neither she nor Beverly enjoyed in their own poverty-stricken childhoods. 

Having gone into the play after reading some coverage of prior productions, I knew about some (though not all) of the twists and turns that inform this three-hour long odyssey ahead of time, which made it particularly rewarding to see those twists forecasted in the cast’s excellent performances before they became “public knowledge.” If some of these life-altering revelations may have threatened to stray a touch too far into melodrama, playwright Tracy Letts ensures that the play crackles along to several astounding moments of dramatic payoff nonetheless.

Letts also infuses a surprising amount of dark humor into this story of a family whose history amounts to a series of tragedies, and makes even the family members whose sins are more egregious surprisingly likable, though in that regard he also gets a good deal of help from the nuanced performances of the play’s cast. 

Ryffin Phoenix and Dennis Creaghan

Most notably, Sara Morsey shows an extraordinary amount of range and talent as the great damaged and deluded Violet Weston, portraying the character in states of clarity as well as of drug-addled delirium and aptly balancing her viciousness and her fragility. She’s well-matched with Kathy McCafferty as oldest daughter Barbara, who also displays both qualities in spades to astonishing effect. You can also see in Bruce Linser’s performance as her husband Bill the charm and level-headedness that buoyed the couple through over a decade of marriage and enough bitterness in McCafferty to make his transgressions understandable.

Since to detail further standouts amongst the accomplished actors that make up the rest of the dysfunctional Weston family and their associates would probably take all day, I’ll settle for saying that Dennis Creaghan, Margery Lowe, Laura Turnbull, Stephen Trovillion, Allie Beltran, Niki Fridh, Christopher Daftsios, Ryffin Phoenix and Iain Batchelor all do a phenomenal job of imbuing their respective characters with distinct personalities and portraying the often-fraught dynamics between them. Even David A. Hyland, portraying a sheriff who wanders into the central family’s insanity for two brief scenes in Act 1 and 3, is incredibly well-suited to the part of the down-to-earth interloper and was a major factor in making said scenes as moving as they were. 

Again, if there’s anything to be said against August: Osage County, it may just be how ultimately cynical the play emerges. Despite rewarding moments of tenderness that emerge between the family members and the many moments of levity, they were overshadowed in the end by a sense that little happiness is going to be found for any of these characters’ lives as they fail to break free from the family’s dark history. 

Ryffin Phoenix, Stephen Trovillion, Iain Batchelor,Laura Turnbull, Sara Mosey, Margery Lowe, Kathy McCafferty, Niki Fridh, Christopher Daftsios, Bruce Linser, and Allie Beltran

Still, besides the sheer entertainment value of watching the wreckage as relationships and sanity fall apart piece by piece, the play is also worth a visit because of the insightful commentary it offers on especially issues of addiction and intergenerational understanding-or-lack-thereof, and on the way in which the family’s deterioration seems to mirror a larger societal spiral, such as when Barbara reflects on the following comment of her father’s:

“You know, this country was always pretty much a whorehouse, but at least it used to have some promise. Now it’s just a shithole.”

She goes on to describe: 

“But there was something sad in his voice–or no, not sad, he always sounded sad-something more hopeless than that. As if it had already happened. As if whatever was disappearing had already disappeared. As if it was too late. As if it was already over. And no one saw it go. This country, this experiment, America, this hubris: what a lament, if no one saw it go.”

In any case, whether America is irredeemable or not, you’re unlikely to find a more absorbing—or more harrowing—evening of theatre around these parts in the next few weeks than August: Osage County. You have until this April 16 to watch three hours fly by in a thrilling whirlwind of zingers, shockers, and interpersonal explosions—so I wouldn’t hesitate to grab a ticket!

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