Tolstoy wrote that all happy families are the same, and that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. In the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s “August: Osage County”, that adage plays out on stage for the Weston family. Over the course of three acts (and over three hours) the troubles of the Weston clan unfold and unravel, until the entire family structure is dissolved. Directed by Producing Artistic Director Brian Isaac Phillips, Tracy Lett’s Pulitzer prize-winning play, which premiered in 2007, still packs a punch (sometimes literally) and keeps the audience on the edge of their seats with laughter and horror over the complicated relationships that make up the Weston family.
Lett’s writes “August: Osage County” in the tradition of Chekov’s “Cherry Orchard“ and O’Neil’s “Long Days Journey Into Night”: an ensemble drama about the private tragedies of an unhappy family brought back together by tragic events. The first act introduces the problem–Beverly Weston (Jim Hopkins), the alcoholic patriarch of the family, has hired Johnna Monevata (played with gravity by Isabella Star LaBlanc), a Cheyenne woman, to be a live-in cook and caretaker for his addict wife, Violet (Leslie Brott). Then the patriarch leaves the home–bringing two of his daughters and brother and sister-in-law back to comfort his wife. The opening act is the slowest of the three. But, friends, please do not worry about the next few hours as a tedious evening in theatre (I am personally always wary of a three act, over three-hour play)–this production will grab your attention and not let go till the evening is over.
The second act opens with the entire family back together, and leads with a comedic aria perfectly timed by Maggie Lou Rader as Karen Weston, the flightiest of the three Weston Sisters. Rader’s mastery of this scene, and comedic timing with napkins, sets the fast, funny and vicious tone for the rest of the evening. No family drama is complete without a meal, and the dinner in the second act is one of the finest paced and staged dinner scenes I have seen. When Uncle Charles, played expertly by Barry Mulholland, delivers Grace before the meal the entire audience was in stitches. Mulholland was one of many standouts in this ensemble cast. Kelly Mengelkoch, who we last saw at CSC as the bold Miss Holmes, becomes the believable wallflower sister Ivy. One of the wonderful things about the ensemble model that Cincinnati Shakespeare Company uses is that the audience gets to experience the wide range of roles that actors can play over the course of multiple seasons.
The engine of this play, however, is not the ensemble, but rather the dueling matriarchs Violet Weston and her favorite daughter Barbara (Corinne Mohlenhoff). Mohlenhoff’s Barbara is by turns reserved, violent, darkly comic, and powerful, and a match to the pill-induced vicious madness of of Brott’s Violet. If you’ve seen the 2013 film adaptation of “August: Osage County”, Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep played these two characters, but the film doesn’t give those actors the space and time for the muscularity that Mohlenhoff and Brott bring to the roles.
What is public and what is private in the life of a family? I found myself wondering about that boundary often throughout the play, but especially as I contemplated Shannon Moore’s stunning and detailed set. Moore’s work invites us into the sprawling Weston Home in Oklahoma, but not too far in. There are three detailed floors crammed into the intimate Otto M. Buddig theatre, but Moore has cleverly only exposed the public areas–the dining room, living room and hallways. Other than Johnna’s attic and Beverly’s office, the private rooms of the family are closed to us. We can never really know what happens behind closed doors, just like we can never really know an addict’s struggle or why a marriage fails. Justen N. Locke’s lighting made the space feel as warm and oppressive as the un-air-conditioned, shuttered house in August should feel.
Many things have changed in the world since this play premiered at Steppenwolf in Chicago in 2007. The stories of addiction and abuse resonate differently during the opioid crisis, and the sexual coercion by one of the male characters towards Barbara’s 14-year-old daughter Jean (the splendid debut of Kayla Temshiv) feel more timely and hit harder than they did a decade ago. I will be thinking about this play and this performance for a while, and considering what the breakdown of the white family, supported by a Native American woman, means for us today. Oklahoma, after all, was originally the territory where so many tribes were removed to before it became a state. I was happy to see that CSC included a land acknowledgement in the program, and I hope they’ll continue that practice for their whole season.
“August: Osage County” runs through September 28th, and it is well-worth your time to go see this thoughtful, moving, hilarious, and tragic production. You can purchase tickets here.