The wild and wonderful Westons of Oklahoma are back. Think your family's crazy? This bunch thrives on hard liquor and invective. As the subjects of Tracy Letts' much-honored play August: Osage County, the Westons are the most pill-addled, booze-soaked, internecine American family to tear up a stage since the Tyrones of Long Day's Journey, Wingfields of Glass Menagerie and Lomans of Death of a Salesman.
WaterTower Theatre is presenting the locally cast debut of this epic dark comedy, starring a dozen of North Texas' top professional actors. The national tour of Steppenwolf Theatre's Tony-winning production was at the Winspear Opera House in 2010, and even if WaterTower doesn't have the big-name value of Estelle Parsons in the leading role, it has Dallas' own Pam Dougherty, a formidable tower of power in her own right. (If you saw her in WaterTower's Grey Gardens, you'll know she's right for Osage County.)
Director René Moreno's staging of the play is more impressive visually than the big tour. Scenic designer Rodney Dobbs has built a three-story, multi-roomed prairie mansion on the stage in Addison, cutaway like a giant dollhouse. For three acts over three and a half hours, the members of the Weston clan — mother Violet, daughters Barbara, Ivy and Karen, various in-laws, an aunt, a fiancé, a first cousin, a pouty teenager and one warrior-angel Osage Indian housekeeper — go at it under that peaked roof. Their words pierce the air like poison blow darts. They hurl dishes and insults with equally accurate aim. And even when they try for once to be nice around the family dining table, things escalate to all-out war so fast, nobody gets dessert.
April is the cruelest month, wrote T.S. Eliot. Well, maybe in his house. For the Westons, hell is August in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, four square miles of dusty ugly on the northern edge of the state. Patriarch Beverly Weston, played here by Cliff Stephens, giving a master class in subtle acting in his single, searing scene, is a once-famous poet, now a drunk given to quoting great writing by Eliot and John Berryman. In the lines that will hang over the rest of the play like a storm cloud, Beverly says, "My wife takes pills, and I drink. That's the bargain we've struck." He says that at the top of the first act, talking to Johnna (the excellent Sasha Truman-McGonnell), a reserved young American Indian woman he's brought in to cook and clean.
By the next scene, Beverly has disappeared from the house, causing a chaotic reunion as family members gather to decide what to do. Wife Violet (Dougherty), munching prescription painkillers like Tic Tacs to quell the pain of mouth cancer, stumbles down the stairs in a druggy daze. Eldest daughter Barbara (Sherry Jo Ward) arrives in a tizzy from Colorado with husband Bill (James Crawford) and nymphet daughter Jean (Ruby Westfall). No one in the family is supposed to know that Barb and Bill, a college prof, have split because he's sleeping with a student, or notice that Jean's a pot-smoking little twat.
Violet's blowsy sister Mattie Fae (Nancy Sherrard) blows in with her hangdog husband, Charlie (Tom Lenaghen, whose underplaying of the role complements Sherrard's noise). Their gentle son Little Charles (Clay Yocum in another bit of pitch-perfect casting) arrives later, hesitant, trembling on the porch before entering the fray. No wonder, he's secretly in love with his first cousin Ivy (Kristin McCollum, beautifully playing the spinster librarian).
A brief ray of sunshine enters the house with the appearance of chirpy youngest sister Karen (Jessica Cavanagh) and her thrice-married fiancé, Steve (Chris Hury). They sell real estate together in Florida, Karen having successfully escaped the drear of the Oklahoma plains. But Steve has a secret. He's a teeth-sucking sleaze with a thing for girls Jean's age. Yeah, that happens.
Act 1 provides the set-up that calls everyone home: Daddy's gone, but where? Act 2 answers that and then brings out the knives as ugly truths are sliced and diced around that dining table. ("Thank God we can't tell the future. We'd never get out of bed," Barbara says to her daughter as they get grim news about what's happened to Beverly.)
Violet's tongue, burning from cancer, manages to spit flames at everyone around her. In her brief moment of lucidity in the dinner scene, she drags everyone down into the dragon's den, then announces, with finality, "That's the crux of the biscuit." Dougherty is brilliant in the second act. Brilliant and terrifying.
Act 3 is the aftermath, with relationships shattered or redefined. Among the Weston curses: multiple addictions, terminal illness, dementia, infidelity, pedophilia, divorce and incest. It says a lot about these characters that the incestuous relationship is the only one in the family in which the lovers are actually kind to one another.
August: Osage County is 45 minutes too long, with scene after scene in which characters deviate from the problems at hand to chew over what's wrong with America. The theme of "family as myth" is ground in like a cigarette stub under Violet's heel, over and over. "We're just people," says one sister (can't remember which one), in yet another long sequence where the "agitated Westons" get drunk and angry one more time.
What's great about the play, though, is that even at its ugliest, even in that third hour and beyond, it's some of the funniest writing ever done for the American stage. Letts doesn't let his characters whine on for too long without throwing in a line like "Don't get all Carson McCuller's on me," or, my favorite, "Eat the fish, bitch!" (The build-up to it is what makes it memorable.)
This play, as one character says of Beverly's disappearance, is fraught. There's enough in it for six plays. What happens in each room of that set could be a series of stand-alone one-acts.
Strong performances like the ones at WaterTower are crafted by great directing (Moreno always brings out the best in his actors) and by an ensemble of pros who work together to make each other great. In this production, the weight of the play is borne by Sherry Jo Ward as Barbara. Her extraordinary range as an actress is apparent as she rages, melts, explodes and implodes, sometimes in the space of a few inhales and exhales. Ward, tall and broad-shouldered, like a younger Allison Janney, can reach the back row vocally and physically. But her eyes and face react as if she's on film. Tiny things happen. Real things. Phenomenal.
August: Osage County takes its actors and its audience on an unforgettable journey. With the WaterTower production, you couldn't be in better company.