Saturday, May 14, 2011

Review: AUGUST: Osage County at Zach -- GO GO GO!!

Lauren Lane (left)  and Lana Dieterich. photo (c) Kirk R. Tuck

At long last I got to see the ZACH production of AUGUST: Osage County last night and I have a bit of bad news for y’all— sadly there are only a few more performances before the show closes on May 22nd. Which means that all the people who should see it (by which I mean EVERYBODY) won’t be able to. So let me begin by saying that, before you read the rest of this review, you really ought to buy your tickets this very second, lest so many bastards beat you to the punch and snap up all the seats for the handful of remaining shows, leaving you to spend the rest of your life regretting having missed it.

Now, about the show. It’s directed by Dave Steakley, who loves to put on big ensemble shows with lots going on (Porgy and Bess, Our Town, RENT, The Drowsy Chaperone, and Keeping it Weird to name but a few). So it’s no surprise that Osage County is deep and rich and supremely textured. Written by Tracy Letts, who won a Pulitzer for the play, the show runs over three hours, though it feels like some time warp thing is going on. Because, though the first act intentionally comes out of the gates slowly, once it picks up steam it just whips along. By the time you walk out you’re thinking, “Wow, that went fast.” 

The basic ingredients of Osage County are the common stuff of countless plays, movies, and TV shows. In this sense, Letts takes a risk. Do we really want to see another portrait of deep family dysfunction that includes long held secrets, sibling rivalry, failed marriages, destructive addictions, and incredibly uncomfortable dinners riddled with accusations, hollering and lies? In this case, the answer is a resounding YES. Letts breathes exciting new life into ideas that, handled by a less savvy writer, might fall under the umbrella of timeworn. He deftly shifts gears—one moment you feel like you’re watching a riotous comedy and the next you feel like you’re at a deep, dark drama.


Beyond Letts’ excellent writing, Steakley’s superb directing and a fabulous set by Michael Raiford, the success of ZACH’s Osage County comes most directly from a baker’s dozen cast. Good lord this town is crawling with talent and I was delighted going in, knowing that I’d get to see Lauren Lane and Lana Dieterich perform together. As I’ve said before, Lane (who is a friend and who I was lucky enough to share the stage with in The Dick Monologues) could read the fucking phone book and I’d pay to see it. She is a stunning, stunning, STUNNING actress. As for Dieterich—though I’d only seen her perform twice before (in ZACH’s Our Town and HPT’s VIGIL) that was enough to sell me on her endless talent. I am in love with that woman.

Everyone shines in Osage County, but it is Dieterich as the family matriarch Violet, and Lane as Barbara the eldest of three disconnected sisters, who hold the meatiest roles, characters that are complex, hilarious, angry, and all-around brilliant. And those descriptions barely scratch the surface of how well these women carry off their performances. The standing ovation they received was not your typical Austin Standing O (practically a given at so many shows). Oh no—I wanted to stand up and clap throughout all three acts.

As usual, I refuse to give away any of the plot, beyond mentioning the broad elements that Letts draws on. Let’s just say that this family is supremely fucked up and while I didn’t exactly delight in their suffering, the portrayal of their suffering is absolutely delicious. And Letts throw out a couple of subtle zingers—pay attention for the references to Maria Full of Grace and Carson McCullers, both of which prompted me to let loose snort-enhanced guffaws (really, I guffawed) and double over with laughter.

Oh, there is so much going on here. Barbara’s marriage to Bill (played so well the night I saw the show by understudy Robert Gomes—you’d never have known he was the US except for the note in the program) is portrayed spectacularly. Their arguments—the barbs swapped, the essence of a falling apart after 23 years together—are a beautiful, bitter poetry. Ellie Archer and Irene White play Karen and Ivy respectively, Barbara’s sisters who struggle with the family dynamic as well as personal battles in their own lives. Coming from a family of eight sisters, I particularly loved the subplot of sisterly relations—so much resonance in seeing siblings cut from the same cloth who nonetheless wear that cloth in wildly different fashions.

Rounding out the cast are Janelle Buchanan as Mattie Fae, Greg Baglia as Steve, Michael Holmes as Beverly, Thomas Faustin Huisking as the sheriff, Kendra Perez as Johnna, Corley Pillsbury as Jean, Michael Stuart as Charlie and Jonathan Shultz as Little Charles. All pull their weight—the casting here is wonderful.

Before I saw the show, a number of people told me, “It’s so great, you’re going to love it.” Such predictions make me a little nervous and I worry going in that I’ll either set my expectations too high or, out of subconscious contrarianism, look for reasons to disagree. Even is you share this quality with me, I still feel confident telling you to go, go, GO see see AUGUST: Osage County. Really, it’s so great. You’re going to love it.

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