Theater Review: “August: Osage County” at Keegan Theatre

Keegan does a masterful job with Tracy Letts’s tricky but powerful Pulitzer Prize winner.

By: Gwendolyn Purdom

This time of year in Washington, a thick summer swelter hangs in the air. It’s uncomfortable and at times downright suffocating, but it’s nothing compared with the heavy cloud of resentment and deep-seated family tension that permeates the crowded Oklahoma home at the center of playwright Tracy Letts’s powerful August: Osage County, now playing at the Keegan Theatre’s Church Street playhouse. The staging of this nearly four-hour-long drama, which premiered at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 2007 and took home both Pulitzer and Tony awards for Best Play in 2008, is a remarkable feat for director Mark A. Rhea and an outstanding cast of actors.

Imagine your most acrimonious of family gatherings (hot tempers flaring at the dinner table, unspoken truths tumbling from spiteful lips, unstable relatives hurdling past the line of social graces). Then imagine it on steroids—or, in this case, a stiff concoction of downers and painkillers like the ones family matriarch Violet (a show-stealing Rena Cherry Brown) pops like candy throughout the show—and you’ll begin to paint a picture of the Westons. The dysfunctional clan has grudgingly gathered at its house outside Pawhuska, Oklahoma, in the wake of patriarch Beverly (Stan Shulman)’s sudden disappearance, each family member dragging his or her own special set of emotional baggage. There’s the disgruntled daughter (Belen Pifel as Ivy Weston) burnt out from years of caring for her unpredictable mother, the stunted man-child cousin (Michael Innocenti as Little Charles Aiken), and the angsty teenage granddaughter (Lyndsay Rini as Jean Fordham), among a talented collection of others. Driving the ill-fated ship with dually affecting precision and honesty is conflicted daughter Barbara Fordham (a steely Susan Marie Rhea) and her strung-out but razor-sharp mother (Brown).

The production as a whole is beautifully acted, with every complicated character adding a distinct shade to the overall portrait of a troubled Plains family. But Rhea and Brown are magnetic—Rhea builds a bittersweet arc of strength and vulnerability as her character reaches a personal tipping point, while Brown emanates Violet’s pain and fury from somewhere hauntingly deep and raw, captivating the space with her every perfectly slurred word or stumble. The show is funny, too, dotted with effortless scenes of affection and the comfortable familiarity of seemingly different people bonded by unfortunate genetics and shared history. Teetering on the line of intense drama and relatable comedy, the action strikes a rich, realistic balance that resounds long after the performance ends.

Letts packs August’s three-and-a-half-hour running time with stunning twists and revelations that could easily border on soap-operatic, but the cast and artistic team here rein it in toward the believable, artfully injecting the dusty sadness of a rural farmhouse with life at its most climactic. The nubby crocheted throw blankets and overflowing ashtrays of set designer Stefan Gibson’s dreary and straightforward design, along with the decision to use actors in character to move props and set pieces between scenes only make the claustrophobic family atmosphere that much more authentic.

For a show with little pageantry or out-of-the-ordinary situations to rely on, August is mesmerizing. The Keegan has produced a gripping and delicate portrayal of a family on the brink. Three and a half hours dripping in the weighty heat of conflict and resolution has never felt more refreshing.

August: Osage County is playing at Keegan Theatre’s Church Street Theater through September 2. Running time is about three and a half hours with two intermissions. Tickets ($30 to $35) are available via Keegan’s website.