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August: Osage County

a Atlanta Premiere
CATEGORY :
by Tracy Letta

COMPANY : Alliance Theatre Company [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Woodruff Art Center [WEBSITE]
ID# 4030

SHOWING : April 13, 2011 - May 08, 2011

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PRODUCTION DESCRIPTION

Cruelty’s more fun when you keep it in the family.

Think your family has issues? This raucous dark comedy transforms one family gathering into an evening of can’t-turn-away blood sport – filled with sex, secrets, and REALLY inappropriate behavior. Revel in this searing and corrosive family trainwreck featuring an ensemble of Atlanta’s favorite actors as you’ve never seen them before . . . like, say, cat-fighting at a funeral.

One of the most lauded plays of the decade, August: Osage County won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Tony Award for Best Play, and a well deserved reputation as an emotional Armageddon you don’t want to miss. The New York Times calls it “flat-out, no asterisks and without qualifications, the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years.”


CAST & CREW LIST
Little Charles Andrew Benator
Click to Submit Cast & Crew Info for this production
REVIEWS

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Bloodsport!
by Dedalus
Thursday, June 2, 2011
5.0
Every so often a production comes along that forever redefines what we mean by excellence. Such a production is the Alliance’s staging of Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County,” a searing and provocative post-mortem on “family values.” When I first read the play a number of years ago, I felt compelled to write a piece praising its dark-edged humor and finally-honed characters, admitting I was “chomping at the bit” to see a production. Now that I have, all I can see is that it not only met my expectations, but raised the bar on all of them.

Poet and teacher Beverly Weston (Del Hamilton) has disappeared. His daughters, all too close to middle age for comfort, descend on his rambling Oklahoma house to “support” his drug-addicted wife, Violet (Brenda Bynum). Thus begins an alcohol-and-resentment soaked battle for survival. For three acts, the Weston family pulls at the “ties that bind (and gag),” airing old hurts and creating new ones, picking at the scabs of long-submerged failings and wallowing in all the bitterness that only a lifetime of lies and hurts can establish.

Eldest daughter Barbara is fighting for control as she loses her husband to a younger woman and her daughter to dope and, um, other risky behaviors. Middle daughter Ivy, the one who remained “close to home,” is longing to finally scratch her way to a sort of freedom. Youngest daughter Karen has settled into an uneasy engagement to a sleaze-ball whose only redeeming quality is that he wants her. Add to the mix Violet’s sister Mattie Fae, who comes with her long-suffering husband, her browbeaten-to-catatonia son, and a purse-full of secrets all her own.

For three acts and three hours, these characters roam around the multi-storied set, forming alliances that go only as deep as the next drink, battling for dominance (“I’M IN CHARGE, NOW!” is the climactic Act II cry), and struggling in vain for some sort of closure or comfort or moment of sanity. It’s as if George and Martha from “Virginia Woolf” really did raise a family and taught them everything they practiced about the bloodsport of family life.

In my article on the script, I made a lot of comparisons to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” beginning with the detail that Mr. Letts must have been working on this play while he was here playing George in the Alliance’s 2004 production of Albee’s play. In another piece of synchronicity, the Honey and Nick of that production (Courtney Patterson and Joe Knezevich) are here as Karen and her fiancé, Steve. In a nutshell, like Albee, Mr. Letts gives us an aging couple in academia who have let their relationship smolder to a constant flame of concessions and drug-and-alcohol fueled escape, while their offspring handle the emotional brinkmanship that characterized the Albee play.

Here there are many many moments of submerged affection, bitter loss, and angry betrayal. Here there are many many moments of bad decisions, and wrong behavior, and realized-too-late repercussions. Here there are many many moments of dark humor and eye-rolling excess and angry silence.

Not to be too over-the-top with my praise, but here there are many many reminders about what theatre aspires to be, about why I love it, and about why Atlanta actors can do anything.

Yes, this is a completely Atlanta cast. Including at least three local artistic directors (Del Hamilton, Richard Garner, and Carolyn Cook), it also features actors we’ve seen in countless productions before (Chris Kayser, Jill Jane Clements, Bethany Anne Lind, Andrew Benator, Jill Jane Clements, Diany Rodriguez, the aforementioned Ms. Patterson and Mr. Knezevich, and the incomparable Tess Malis Kincaid). Filling out the cast is Brenda Bynum as Violet, who has been missing from Atlanta stages for far too long.

This is one of the best ensembles I’ve seen, well, ever. Ms. Kincaid brings to Barbara a presence and a range that simply astounds – she can be aggravating one moment and heartbreaking the next, filled with violence one act, and catatonic with grief the next. She is the “center” of this production, and, (slightly) more than anyone else, lifts it from the page into the realm of greatness. Ms. Cook disappears into Ivy, giving her silences and longings equal parts joy and pain. And Ms. Patterson gives Karen a talky flightiness that has to crash-land sooner or later. Ms. Bynum brings a staggering volatility to Violet, making her drug-fueled rantings equal parts comedy and tragedy, her shrill cruelties almost affectionate; we should hate this character, but, I for one, couldn’t. Ms. Lind wears Jean’s ennui like a blanket, using her youth and (questionable) innocence as a shield against the toxic influence of her family; yet you still see her some day turning into her mother and grandmother.

As for the men, well, what can be said? Most are mere targets of scorn, and all the actors bring something unique to each character. Mr. Kayser’s Bill (Barbara’s wandering husband) seems to be calm and collected, but he makes his straying eye seem not only inevitable, but almost required. Mr. Knezevich brings enough charm to Steve that he doesn’t come across as a TOTAL sleaze ball, even as his actions repel us. And, when Mr. Garner’s Charlie finally stands up to his wife (Mattie Fae), it’s a moment of pure victory. Andrew Benator’s “Little Charlie” is a pitiful sad sack, though we see a certain spark that apparently attracted Ivy. And Mr. Hamilton’s Beverly, even though he disappears five minutes into the show, starts the play with such force that his “shadow” never completely disappears.

When I first saw the set (by Leslie Taylor), I was a little taken aback by its openness – after all, the script emphasizes its closed-off quality (Violet has taped all the blinds shut rendering it constant night). However, Ken Yunker’s lighting design is so accurate and “right” (the “openness” disappears once the lights are up), and I soon saw it as the best choice. The background cyclorama is then used to punctuate each act with a slowly disintegrating tree that melts away as we leave the family to its own deadly games, adding an emotional level that would be lost on a completely closed-off set.

I heard someone describe this more as an “event” than a play. That may be due to its length (over three hours) and its size. But, upon reflection, I can’t help but be a little depressed by the comment. Plays like this should not be a special event, but should be the norm. This is a play that presents a houseful of distinct characters, telling a story that unfolds in leisurely (but fast-paced) detail, and takes us on a roller-coaster ride of emotions, both high and low, moving us to tears even as it tickles our sense of the absurd. It explores a particular dysfunctional family in ways that almost celebrates family dysfunction, and leaves us with a sense of well-being in thinking our own families are “so much better.”

For me, that’s not an “event,” but what I look for in every play I see.

And this is a play you really REALLY need to experience. It will make you look at the ones you love with a profoundly new sense of suspicion.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


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