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August: Osage County -- Theater Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
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Some parents, unfortunately, don't seem to like their children. We meet such a curious person in Tracy Letts' shattering Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winning "August: Osage County," a play that will lift you out of your seat with laughter one moment and stun you into silence the next.

"August" illustrates that just when we thought there was nothing further to say about a dysfunctional American family in the theater, the genre is anything but exhausted in the hands of a playwright with talent, nerve and something to say.

In such earlier plays as "Killer Joe" and "Bug," Letts announced his arrival with the kind of ferocity, wit, risk-taking and dialogue virtuosity that suggest a major playwright in the making.
"August" fulfills that promise and then some.

This is a large, long (3 1/2 hours), confident play full of vivid, three-dimensional characters, twisty surprises, crackling arguments and a finely tuned ear and eye for the hidden -- and not always noble -- calibrations of the human heart.

At the center of the drama, set in rural Oklahoma, stands -- or totters -- Violet Weston (a superb Estelle Parsons reprising her Broadway turn) and her three daughters, all in their 40s, each one scarred in a different way by their mean-spirited and frequently vicious mother. Violet pops pills like jellybeans and in her addled state is capable of turning on her children like an animal eager to devour its' young. The daughters, caught in the coils of the past and their natural instincts, keep coming back for more punishment, and Mama obliges.

The play is kicked into gear when Beverly (Jon DeVries), the clan's nominal head, mysteriously disappears and two of the daughters and the rest of the extended family descend on the old homestead. The third daughter, Ivy (Angelica Torn), already lives at home as a kind of caretaker for her parents, suffering in silence for years.

Barbara (Shannon Cochran, a raw nerve waiting to be triggered), the oldest daughter, is the only one with the temperament and wits about her to take on her mother. The duel between them is doubly absorbing to watch because Barbara's marriage is falling apart at the same time that what remains of her relationship with her mother is disintegrating; the two events, like all the other relationships in the play, are linked to each other in some subterranean fashion.

The construction of the play is a thing of beauty. It's a bit like watching a master carpet maker weave together the different strands of a carpet, gradually drawing out a design there was no way to foresee but which now looks inevitable.

As earthy, vitriolic and funny as the play is, it's also heartbreaking because it shows so clearly how perverse human nature can be and how difficult, if not impossible, it is to change the deeper patterns of that nature by letting go of the past. Violet tells a revealing story late in the play about how her own mother once played a terrible trick on her when she was an adolescent, then laughed about it for days. This is the only real explanation we're offered as to the source of Violet's bitterness and constant undermining of her children's confidence and hopes, traits shared not so incidentally by Violet's acid-tongued sister, Mattie Fae (Libby George).

This is an ensemble piece of writing if ever there was one, and the acting is up to the challenge. The dialogue is so natural and free-flowing, the actors take to it without a hint of artificiality or forced effect under Anna D. Shapiro's astute direction (the original Steppenwolf and Broadway director).

Because there are no easy answers or facile redemptions in the play, only questions, flashes of insight and more questions, the drama never loses its edge ... or its fascination.

Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Venue: Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles (Through Oct. 18)
Cast: Estelle Parsons, Shannon Cochran, Jon DeVries, Libby George, Stephen Riley Key, Emily Kinney, Laurence Lau, Marcus Nelson, Paul Vincent O'Connor, Jeff Still, DeLanna Studi, Angelica Torn, Amy Warren
Playwright: Tracy Letts
Director: Anna D. Shapiro
Set design: Todd Rosenthal
Lighting design: Ann G. Wrightson
Costume design: Ana Kuzmanic
Sound design: Richard Woodbury
Original music: David Singer