“I’ve been trying all night long just to talk to you.” This lyric from Eric Clapton’s rock ballad “Lay Down Sally” is both mantra and recurring lament in August: Osage County, the monumental play by Tracy Letts that opens the University of Delaware’s Resident Ensemble Players season.
The production is directed with clarity, sympathy, robust energy, and a tidal wave of forward motion by Jackson Gay, who elicits and encourages impeccable, illuminating performances from her large acting company. About half are REP members and half are guest artists (some new, some returning), and there’s not a false move or a dramatic misstep from anyone in the company, including the director.
Thriving in the theater
Letts wrote his play for Chicago’s legendary Steppenwolf Theatre (hence the large cast). It premiered there in June 2007, but the playwright interestingly set it three months into the future (hence the title). The production was scooped up for Broadway, moving to New York in December, where it was awarded a Tony. It also won London’s Olivier Award and the 2008 Pulitzer Prize.
The work is produced worldwide and is a staple of multiple American companies, but (as REP producer Sanford Robbins writes in the program) the highly promoted movie starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts was a critical and box office failure. It seems this drama thrives only on the energy of live theater.
Meet the Westons
Letts set the play during an August heat wave (à la Tennessee Williams, the master of sweaty dramas) in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. It’s a real town with a large historic district 60 miles northwest of Tulsa and the seat of both Osage County and the Osage Tribal Government.
There, the never-really-close Weston family—scattered by both choice and circumstance—gathers reluctantly to confront and (possibly) weather a crisis. The play opens as patriarch Beverly Weston (Stephen Pelinski, in a brief but riveting appearance) hires the unflappable and inscrutable Johnna Monevata (Karen Alvarado) as a housekeeper. A poet whose single lauded poetry volume was published long ago, Weston has embraced alcohol as a refuge from his wife Violet, who’s addicted to pills (Kathleen Pirkl Tague in a force-of-nature performance).
Weston disappears and the family descends, ostensibly to help Violet. They include her sister Mattie Fay (Angela Iannone) and three daughters: quiet Ivy (Deena Burke), flighty Karen (Bridget Flanery), and strong-willed Barbara (Elizabeth Heflin, toe-to-toe with Pirkl Tague as both character and actor), alongside husbands, children, fiancés, and old boyfriends. Every character has strengths and weaknesses, but here every actor is strong.
The minimal plot is straightforward; character and characterization drive this drama. And they do so relentlessly with a series of ever-mounting surprises, some predictable, some not. To divulge them would compromise the drive and force that Letts so skillfully crafted.
Scenic designer Brittany Vasta created a hyper-realistic dollhouse set that is both a cross-section of reality and a poetic metaphor. Its central feature is a beautiful white stairway that turns back on itself (much like this family) as it ascends to the attic heights where Johnna takes refuge. Paul Whitaker’s rangy lighting design sets myriad scenes and then bumps the audience quickly (almost rudely) away and into each intermission.
Letts’s nuggets of knowledge, setting, or character are like shells partially buried in the sand. Revealed both during the play and in hindsight, they include the fact that this unlucky family consists of 13 actors (certainly a dramaturgical choice). Weston’s book of poetry is aptly titled Meadowlark, a bird whose Eastern and Western species (according to Audubon) “see each other as potential rivals and actively defend their territories against each other.” Physically and verbally abusive Violet (no shrinking flower) is only one letter short of “violent,” with throat cancer that’s the physical manifestation of the toxic verbiage she spews.
Long but fleet
August: Osage County runs well over three hours with two intermissions, the hallmark of drama from another age. It’s a not-so-subtle evocation of both the “well-made plays” and melodramas of yesteryear, and the Chekhovian undertow is clear. But though the structure might be traditional, there is nothing fusty here, and the evening (at first daunting in length) flies by.
And it’s funny. Though this family’s secrets come crashing and foaming on rocky familial shores, they often ebb in a tide of black humor and unexpected wit. Gay has directed her company to straightforwardly embody the range of human experience that Letts has crafted. She uses no tricks or gimmickry, just the clarity and singleness of purpose from every company member that serve this remarkable play with a first-rate production.
What, When, Where
August: Osage County. By Tracy Letts, directed by Jackson Gay. Through October 13, 2019 at the Thompson Theatre of the University of Delaware’s Roselle Center for the Arts, 110 Orchard Road, Newark, Delaware. (302) 831-2204 or rep.udel.edu.
The Thompson Theatre in the Roselle Center is a wheelchair-accessible venue. To learn more or request accommodations, call the box office or email [email protected] at least five days in advance of the performance you’re attending.