Review of August: Osage County
By Tracy Letts
Directed by Jasson Minadakis
For tickets / schedule :
Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley
RUN: September 8 – October 2, 2016 (Extended to Oct 9)
RATING: 5 of 5 stars
(September 13, 2016)
Vitriolic wit permeates this dark comedy in a depressingly accurate portrayal of the modern American family. Flashes of poetry lash out through mumbling exchanges and misunderstood conversations typical of disillusioned relationships. Family members talk and shout at each other, unwilling to listen before replying, deliberately twisting words, and desperately unhappy. Lighting designer Kurt Landisman expertly weaves a story through careful illumination—harsh daylight for the main action, soft for supporting vignettes, and semi-darkness silhouetting poignant tableaux of the grieving family huddled in pain, watching TV, or quietly reading. Beverly, the patriarch, goes missing and is eventually found drowned after committing suicide. His wife turns to her addiction for solace, ruling with cruel wordplay until her daughter snaps under the poisonous atmosphere, ripping apart the already broken gathering. August: Osage County heightens the drama many families suffer from, spotlighting how casual quips can turn into hurtful exchanges and true pain when we inflict them on those we love. In the lobby, discussions came up of re-evaluating what to say during holidays; perhaps comments like “Elbows off the table! Were you born in a barn?” are not appropriate or constructive, but serve simply to wound.
August: Osage County ramps up in the second act into spine-tingling drama due to the tempestuous relationship of Barbara (Arwen Anderson) with her mother, Violet (Sherman Fracher). Anderson’s performance in the confrontation is sensational. She moves from irritated sniping to seething at the emotional jabs, and righteous fury, thundering out “I’m running things now!” leaving the audience catching their breath. Fracher’s physicality makes the role; she stumbles up and down the teetering set, kneeling, swaggering, and falling with reckless abandon. Her breakdown of grief for Beverly (Will Marchetti) takes powerful form as she crawls upstairs, clutching at the wood, crying out for her lost husband. Danielle Bowen (Jean) is the odd one out as the youngest—present, but not seen as a contributor. Her casual, wannabe bad girl front hides a dangerously innocent teenage girl.
Running through the play is a theme of living in the present, and embracing what that means, good or bad. It is shown in Ivy’s (Danielle Levin) romantic notions, Bill’s (David Ari) pursuit of a younger woman, and Violet’s jaded vision of female body image. The supporting cast is riveting, from Robert Sicular’s awkward speech of grace before dinner as Charlie to Kathleen Pizzo’s (Johnna) comforting and occasionally daring interactions. Realistic Native American characters are rare, and she is a grounding presence in the mayhem onstage.
Ashley Holvick’s costume designs underline the authentic feel of the family. Clothing is soiled, well used, and sloppy or starkly understated in an intimate reflection of each character. Barbara’s journey descends from elegant lines of a perfect suburban housewife to underwear and old pajamas. J.B. Wilson’s sets of naked beams crisscross in a chaotic jumble, allowing for intimate family moments while maintaining the isolation of characters such as Johnna in the attic, or Violet in a Spartan bedroom. Dialog becomes the set dressing of the unadorned dwelling, painting a visual picture in the mind, rather than handing over the interior on a silver platter. A strength of theatre over cinema is that imagination still plays a vital role in the story’s creation, rather than relying on polished special effects. The bare house is filled with emotion, rather than objects, colored by our own family history. Marin Theatre Company has brilliantly set up an in depth display thanks to the work of dramaturg Lydia Garcia, including a board for post it notes from audience members talking about what family means to them. Take a moment to peruse them—sentiments vary wildly from statements that family is “the best most important part of my life” to merely “awkward holiday dinners”. Detailed analysis continues into the bathrooms, which feature hanging plaques about life on the plains in Oklahoma.
August: Osage County is a bleak examination of human nature, and our propensity to attack those we love instead of building them up. Marin Theatre Company presents a clever, gloomy depiction of family that serves as a reminder not to take our relationships for granted, but to nurture them. August: Osage County features a stellar cast in a Pulitzer Prize winning play that is not for the faint of heart, delving into the loathsome depths of frustrated dreams.