Cincinnati Shakespeare Company opens its “Season of the Woman” appropriately with Tracy Letts’ blistering contemporary drama, “August: Osage County”. Director Brian Isaac Phillips opens his notes on the play with the comment, “Families are a mine field”–and that, coupled with the promotional image of the silhouette of a matriarch surrounded by a bomb, pretty much sums up the explosive nature of family dynamics in this portrayal of the tension-fraught family reunion of the Westons in rural Oklahoma.
The plot develops as aging poet and father Beverly Weston (Jim Hopkins) suddenly disappears from the home after abruptly hiring a young Native American, Johnna (Isabella Star LaBlanc) as a caretaker for his acerbic drug-addicted wife Violet (Leslie Brott). Violet, who shifts rapidly between moments of confusion and clarity, is joined by her eldest daughter, the plain and self-conscious Ivy (Kelly Mengelkoch) and her second daughter Barbara, (Corinne Mohlenhoff) who arrives from Colorado with her adolescent daughter (Kayla Temshiv) and estranged husband Bill (Jared Joplin). Barbara was the mom’s favorite but Ivy stayed behind in Oklahoma to take care of her aging parents. Also rounding out the first act are Violet’s sister and brother-in-law, Mattie Fae (Kate Wilford) and Charlie (Barry Mulholland).
The aftermath of the the father’s disappearance brings still more family grist to the mill in the second act–a third daughter, Karen (Maggie Lou Rader) and her fiancé Steve (Justin McCombs). Karen was the wild daughter who finally seems ready to settle down and find happiness with a seemingly devoted and steady man. We also meet the apprehensive and unpoised “Little Charles”, Mattie and Charlie’s son (Cary Davenport), who is treated as a failure by his mother, and Sheriff Deon (Sylvester Little, Jr.), Barbara’s former high-school sweetheart.
To try to relate how this family steadily unravels through the course of the play, with all their hidden truths and unexpected revelations, would be impossible and spoiling. Suffice it to say that the mine-field analogy applies. The ensemble nature of the play really shows off the depth and talent of CSC’s company, and it was a pleasure to see them in a more contemporary setting. The anchors of the cast are Brott and Mohlenhoff, who portray the more striking Violet and Barbara with strength and dignity despite their character flaws and play off each other brilliantly. But every member of this cast has their own moment to shine and they all do so with consummate skill. My personal favorites were Rader’s rambling introduction to Karen’s character, and Mulholland as Charlie desperately trying to put together an appropriate Grace before dinner. But if I had time I could wax on about every role in this play.
The audience’s visceral reactions to this show were also remarkable. One theatre-goer who saw the original on Broadway thought this was even better–“grittier”–and I can certainly believe it. Director Phillips does not pull any punches, literally or figuratively. This is an extremely long play–over three hours, not including two intermissions–and while the first act takes it a little slow setting up the dynamics, the second and third roll over you like a steamroller. Scenic designer Shannon Moore’s realistic and detailed set also helps, using every inch of the Oscar Mayer theater–front to back and top to bottom–to show the sprawling Weston house and highlight the actions of all the characters even when they aren’t in a scene.
My only reservation when I left the show was possibly that Lett’s play was all a bit too much–too manipulative in terms of angst and emotion, like Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill on steroids. But then I thought about my own reunion with my mother whom I moved into assisted living only last weekend–and have to agree with Phillips’ director’s comments that as extreme as the Westons may be, every family has its issues, and “we can all identify with the dread and/or excitement that can overcome us when we think of family.”
So, don’t hesitate to head over to Cincinnati Shakespeare and immerse yourself in the Weston Family for “August: Osage County”, now through September 28th. Tickets can be purchased on their website, https://cincyshakes.com.