By James E. Trainor III
Cedar Rapids - Anyone who thinks the American theatre has lost its momentum has yet to encounter Tracy Letts. His August: Osage County sizzles with biting wit, bold observations, and shocking twists. Urban Theatre Project's production of this powerful play opens this weekend, and the company's passionate acting, careful direction, and clever set design do the piece justice.
August, in a move not quite as dreary as it sounds, opens with a suicide. Beverly Weston (Kevin Burford), at the end of his rope, is hiring a housekeeper to care for his drug-addled wife Violet (Cheryl Moon Thomason). While it becomes increasingly clear that Beverly is not coming back, the mood is upbeat, cynical yet charming, and Burford pulls it off well. He hits the drunken sulking realistically without losing the humor of the situation. He really gets the rhythm of the thing and knows how to play the crowd; all the jokes land really well. His Beverly is a very intriguing character, but we only see him for this brief moment. The rest of the play revolves around the dysfunctional family that his sudden disappearance brings back together. His foil, the new housekeeper Johnna (Erica Jo Hoye), is quiet but receptive; this calm, together young woman will play a small but integral part in the madness that is about to unfold.
Violet is the center of attention for much of the early part of the play. Thomason does excellent character work here. While Violet's drugged confusion is at times humorous, Thomason never loses sight of the pathos of the situation. She plays many scenes in a dreamy state, waving her hands slowly in front of her as if she is trying to piece together reality, and we hang on her every word. In other scenes, typically in the mornings when she is sober, she is very attentive, insightful, competent, and altogether vicious. These two Violets easily fit into the same character, and Thomason's acting does a wonderful job of showing us the horrors of drug addiction.
Violet has three daughters, who are alternately her caretakers and the targets of her brutal honesty. Violet plays something like Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, only George is gone and her daughters are her unwilling playmates.
The youngest is Karen (Megan Tuner Ginsberg), the flighty one, who has just arrived from Florida with her brand-new fiancé. She wants to bask in her sisters' love and her new-found happiness, which is a bit odd for a funeral, and nobody else is buying it. She looks and feels totally out of place here on the plains, and Ginsberg's acting drives the point home quite well. In the scene where she is excitedly trying to catch up with Barbara (Leslie Charipar), her annoying exuberance is the perfect setup for Charipar's exasperated responses. She also has a keen understanding of the dramatic rhythm, and her final speech, though pathetic in content, is both powerful and poetic in tone.
The middle sister is Ivy, played by Lindsay Prince. Prince's physical work is quite outstanding. The way she flinches and shrinks from her mother's caustic tongue is very telling of their relationship. She also works quite well against Charipar and Ginsberg in the scenes with the sisters.
Charipar herself is extremely powerful as the domineering Barbara. Barbara is the eldest sister, who is in the midst of a humiliating divorce with her husband Bill (Scott Humeston). Charipar plays the anger with commitment and passion, picking up the cues and amping up the stakes with all her scene partners. The calmer scenes round the character out and let us see where she's coming from. Barbara is a fierce lioness, as vicious as Violet herself, and she is downright dangerous when pushed into a corner. She's also smart enough to recognize what she's doing; when she takes charge in order to protect her family, she has to decide whether to toughen up like her mother, or whether to walk away and leave all the conflict and nastiness behind her. Charipar is deeply into every scene with all her attention and energy, and the result is a Barbara who's easy to root for, if not always easy to like.
Humeston takes what could easily be a completely unsympathetic character (a pompous English professor who is cheating on his wife with one of his students), and adds some real life. If not forgivable, his Bill is at least understandable, and Humeston brings a lot of honesty and naturalism to these scenes, which makes the whole thing that much more tragic.
Barbara and Bill have a daughter, Jean (Emmy Palmersheim), who represents the next generation of this self-destructive family. Palmersheim deserves special mention because this part is really challenging for a young actor, not only because of the mature subject matter but because of the complex relationships between the characters. She definitely holds her own and brings considerable skill to the role. She is quite funny in her first major scene, explaining the situation between her parents to Johnna in her awkward hyperactive teenage idiom. Her active listening while her parents fight is heartbreaking, and her interactions with Charipar are warm and very true to life.
Director Angie Toomsens' touch in all of this is quite clear. The play is paced excellently, the funny moments work as well as the more intense, and the themes are highlighted and revisited again and again. The use of the stage was well thought-out, though from the back of the house there are some sightline issues when things are played far downstage. Particularly when an actor is seated on the floor or in the down-left chair, it's difficult to see what's going on. This is perhaps unavoidable due to the layout of the space, however, and in any case it was a minor distraction from a fast-paced, extremely intense modern drama.
I'm avoiding some specifics of the plot here in deference to those who have not read the script. Suffice to say the second and third acts of August (yes, there are two intermissions, but trust me, it flies by) are full of plot twists and unexpected revelations. Part of the fun of the piece is the barrage of bombshell after bombshell, and watching the characters either break down or toughen up. Though there are over 100 pages of dialogue, not a word is wasted and the plot is very tight, woven on a grand scale. It's very new, but this play is already being compared with classic American family dramas like A Long Day's Journey Into Night, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and the aforementioned Virginia Woolf. When a company does it with as much heart as Urban Theatre Project gives, it's a night at the theatre you won't soon forget.
I urge you to see August: Osage County; it's not every day you get a chance to witness such a powerful drama. It plays through August 31 at CSPS; more information here.