By Dee Jae Cox
Dark cannot begin to define Palm Canyon Theatre’s production of Tracy Letts’, play, “August:Osage County”. I don’t recall ever being so enthralled with a play that inspired such a dichotomy of emotion. I absolutely hated the story, but loved being reminded that good drama does not always come wrapped in a pretty package. This play is drama at it’s very best. And like a bystander watching two trains speed towards each other on the same piece of track I was perversely captivated as I watched the family portrayed in this Pulitzer Prize winning drama, rip each other to shreds.
August: Osage County is the story of the Weston Family. Set in the plains of Oklahoma, the play weaves together the tragic lives of a family that seems hell bent on self-destruction. Judith Chapman performs the tortured role of drug-addicted matriarch, Violet Weston. Without even uttering her first line, my eyes were riveted to this character. Chapman’s gut-wrenching performance was award winning. A woman filled with such self-loathing that the hate-filled words spill from her lips like shards of glass, cutting and ripping into the flesh of her family. Her alcoholic husband, Beverly, played by the distinguished veteran actor, Jason Lewis, has disappeared and her family comes home in an earnest effort to support Violet during this tragic experience. They find the house dark, with it’s windows covered and taped shut in an effort to block out any sense of time and a reflection of the Weston’s spiraling dysfunction.
Yo Younger is Barbara Fordham and gives an absolutely breathtaking performance as the eldest daughter and the self proclaimed ‘woman in charge’ as she makes a futile effort to sober up her mother and handle the loss of her father while her cheating husband, Bill, played by Nick Edwards, succeeds in being portrayed as a more sympathetic character than his wife, despite leaving his family for a college student half his age. Barbara’s vulnerability only making brief appearances until a dramatic final burst of courage propels her out the door for good.
Barbara and Violet are like fire and gasoline. Explosive and hypnotic as they bite, claw and set each other on fire in one of the most volatile mother/daughter relationships ever written for the stage. Chapman and Younger do not disappoint in their portrayal of these two women. They are both riveting and engaging as they struggle for control of their lives.
Barbara and her sisters, Ivy (Jennifer Bennett) and Karen (Denise Strand) are prime examples of how fractured family relationships can become. Each harboring secrets that continue to tear at the fabric of this family. Ivy’s final scene and realization that her dreams of escape have been ripped apart are heart breaking. And Karen’s denial of a devastatingly ugly and horrific truth send her packing down the same dusty and futile road in her search for elusive happiness.
Johanna Monevata, perfectly portrayed by Morgana Corelli, is the only sane and stabilizing force in this chaotic and hypnotic story. As the Native American housekeeper who is hired by Beverly just before his disappearance, Johanna has the responsibility of being a caretaker and an observer in this family drama. Her American Indian roots are planted deep in the Oklahoma soil and Corelli’s performance was both notable and commendable. She is able to stand out in a supporting role that requires her to blend into the background.
Every southern stereotype can be found in August Osage County. The typical sexist belief that men can grow attractive with age, but women cannot. The ‘stand by your man’ attitude even when he cheats and fathers children with other women you stay in the marriage, cousins dating each other and the decision to stay with a ‘good man’ out of the desperate belief that he is your only hope for happiness, despite his predilections for 14 year old girls.
This cast more than deserved the standing ovation they received at the end of an emotionally exhausting, three act show. Tracy Letts’ writing is superb. His dialogue crackles and sets fire to the stage. J.W. Layne’s set design was one of the best I’ve seen and it fit the script like a glove, the dual level allowing the audience to view what was happening in every room of the house simultaneously. Steve Fisher’s direction painstakingly and beautifully choreographed. There is a cast of 13, some all on stage at the same time in different rooms of the house and yet Fisher’s direction never allows for distraction from whatever scene is predominate at the moment.
August: Osage County needs to be experienced as a live performance. The energy and passion of the story and the characters is lost in film. It is not a play for the faint of heart, but it is quite obvious why Lett’s won the Pulitzer and Tony for this incredible drama.
“August:Osage County”, was performed April 3rd,4th,5th, at the Palm Canyon Theatre, located at 538 North Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs.
Dee Jae Cox, is a playwright, director and producer. She is the Cofounder and Artistic Director for The Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Project and the host of KPTR 1450’s hit radio show, “California Woman 411” in Palm Springs.