August: Osage County is a superb, thrilling play, and the current American Stage production is every bit as special as the script. Brilliantly directed by Todd Olson, an all-star cast takes Tracy Letts' sometimes hilarious, sometimes devastating dialogue and shows us the sordid underside of an America that is all too recognizable. This is a United States high on Xanax and painkillers, afflicted by terminal narcissism, rent by money-love and youth-addiction and committed to no principle higher than every man and woman for him/herself. So you think your family is dysfunctional? Well, come spend three acts with the Westons of Oklahoma, and you'll stagger away grateful that the abuse you put up with is so moderate.
And speaking of gratitude, who can we thank for a cast that includes Julie Rowe, Lisa McMillan, Steve Garland and Katherine Michelle Tanner? And these are just four of the drama's 13 splendid actors, all of whom seem to have been inspired by this text to rise to new altitudes. So there's another reason to see the play: to discover that our best actors are capable of anything. If these performances were any better, they'd surely be illegal.
The plot is deceptively simple: Beverly Weston, patriarch of the Weston family, has gone missing, and his extended family has come to his home to support wife Violet while the police conduct their search. Beverly, we learn, is a poet who way back in 1965 (the can-do years of Lyndon Johnson?) published a book, but who hasn't done much since but develop his taste for alcohol. He's not the only addict in the family: dragon-lady Violet is hooked on pills — she's learned how to extort them from doctors — and 14-year-old granddaughter Jean never travels without her bong.
Bev and Violet have three adult daughters, all of whom arrive at the family homestead with problems of a romantic nature: Barbara's husband has left her for a much younger woman, Ivy is in love with her backward first cousin Little Charles, and Karen is devoted to fiancé Steve, whose wandering eye has recently settled upon pubescent Jean.
These and a few others are caught up in their own and each others' problems as Beverly's fate becomes known; and all have to deal with bitterly honest Violet, who stabs and slashes with words, and whose survival instinct doesn't allow for anyone else's existence. In this Darwinian slugfest, can anyone besides Violet last out the night? And why is no one but the Native American housekeeper Johnna capable of sustained compassion?
The acting — oh yes, the acting. For all its single-mindedness, this is a play about contrasts, and no one embodies contrasts like the vastly talented Julie Rowe. As Barbara, Rowe is imperious and imperiled, assertive and wounded, a strong-armed individualist who just can't hold on to the husband she still adores. As husband Bill, Steve Garland is both caring and cold, decent enough to help Barbara in a pinch, but with his mind on his young lover and on her alone. As Barbara and Bill's daughter Jean, Sarah McAvoy just wants room enough to get stoned, and as the deceitful adult who offers her his own stash of marijuana, Wayne LeGette is spectacularly sleazy and self-satisfied.
His fiancée Karen is played by the wonderful Meg Heimstead as a seeming optimist whose innocence is more manner than matter, and third sister Ivy is presented by the warmly earnest Katherine Michelle Tanner as a born victim of the stronger members of her clan. Strongest of all, of course, is the crushingly intimidating Violet, whom Lisa McMillan plays ferociously, unforgivingly, pitilessly.
Other fine work is turned in by Michael Edwards as Beverly, Karel Wright as Violet's sister Mattie Fae, the very funny Joe Parra as Charlie Aiken, and Brian Shea as Charlie's son. Tia Jemison as Johnna is soothingly decent, and Kerry Glamsch is perfect in the small role of Sheriff Don Gilbeau.
So what does it all mean? One answer is in Scott Cooper's shabby set representing the Weston home: the American Dream is in tatters, it's frayed and fretted. Something once beautiful is now threadbare. You can barely make out the stars and stripes.