Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
August: Osage County
Having seen several outstanding productions of August: Osage County since it debuted in 2007, I almost decided to skip this production. However, knowing San Jose Stage Company's history of stellar casts, daring–often edgy–directorial decisions, and overall theatrical excellence, I (thankfully) chose to attend their current take on the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama winner by Tracy Letts.
I am thrilled to report that, no matter how many times you have seen the multi-Tony-winning play, you should grab a ticket to visit this presentation of the plains of Oklahoma in the hot, sweaty summertime to witness a cast and company that has more than enough mettle to portray the full, rambunctious, no-holes-barred life of the Westons–be it pulling someone's hair, throwing dishes, or chasing mom around the house screaming at full voice, "I'm in charge now!" You, as I did, will likely exit the theatre knowing there is no scale high enough to measure the diseased dysfunction of this blistering brood nor hardly enough superlatives to describe the brilliance of this darkest, funniest, most jarring-to-the-bone of comedies about family.
With an Oklahoma drawl slow and dignified and a voice grown grainy with age and whiskey, the handsome patriarch of the Weston family, Beverly (Randall King), opens the play by quoting his favorite poet, T.S. Eliot: "Life is very long." As he interviews a local young woman of Cherokee heritage, Johnna, to be a live-in housekeeper for the family (something his wife has no idea he is doing), he wryly admits, "My wife takes pills and I drink. That's the bargain we've struck." Later, with a half-smile and eyes that are both sad and sympathetic, he tells her in what turns out to be a foreboding of what is to come, "The place isn't in such bad shape, not yet." Bad enough, however, that after this prologue, the play opens with Beverly having mysteriously disappeared, and all the immediate and extended family are heading home to worry and console, soon to mourn, but mostly it turns out, to bicker and battle with full vigor and venom.
Violet Weston is the matriarch of this clan and we first meet her as she struggles on all fours to climb the stairs, only to plop half-dressed midway while staring blankly into nothingness. Violet has pills hidden in most crooks and crannies, cushions, and closets all around the house. The many pills she openly takes are at least partly intended to relieve the burning in her mouth from recently diagnosed mouth cancer (a cruel joke of nature for a woman who emits from that mouth every four-letter word and insult imaginable to anyone and everyone around her).
It would take an entire article of several thousand words to describe the bold, biting, blustery performance of Judith Miller as Violet, so stunningly magnificent is this mother who has no problem lashing out in monstrous tirade at any of her family members one minute and then becoming in the next a slumping, defeated ball of tears, seeking their love and compassion for all her own woes. When in her doped state she can barely stumble across the room, bumping unawares into furniture and family, all the time slurring words to the point of turning them into some unintelligible tongue. When only in a mild state of numbness, her venom can strike at any moment, as in one family gathering around the dinner table when her victims await their individual, inevitable, verbal lashings as she proclaims, "I'm just truth-telling ... Just time we had some truth's told 'round here's all."
The more this mother claims to love, the more she attacks with profanity-laced barrages, hitting all the most vulnerable spots she knows to target in each family member for maximum, deadly, and lasting impact. Judith Miller bellows, snarls, cackles, and cries at volumes and intensity almost to shake the theatre's walls–all with a believability to make us shudder while also laughing at the dark humor and absurdity of it all.
Three daughters/sisters gather in the family homestead, each bringing her own personal old and new issues, resentments, and secrets–all of which will spill forth both in trickles and floods. Barbara, the first-born, has long escaped the Plains, has avoided the family as much as she can, and has come home with a professor-husband she is divorcing since he is shacking up with one of his college students. Perennial San Jose Stage star and Bay Area award-winner Allison F. Rich never fails to find new ways to vividly express all the angst, anger, and, yes, disgust Barbara so often experiences with everyone from her mother to her sisters to her husband and her fourteen-year-old daughter. She rises to larger-than-life, near-monstrous proportions when she decides it is time to take over and do a "pill raid" in the house; and yet she at other times she sits alone, shudders, and stares alone–stunned that she is no longer in control of her collapsing life.
Together, Judith Miller and Allison Rich are the evening's jarringly astounding standouts among a fabulous cast–a mother/daughter pair who are mirror images of each other in so many destructive and sad ways.
Michael Ray Wisely is Barbara's cheating husband Bill, who is overall a nice guy and who at times tries to be a peacemaker in this warring household. However, even with a compassionate heart and sympathetic eyes, he too has a highly eruptive temper and knows how to push his wife's buttons as she pushes his.
Carley Herlihy is their weed-smoking daughter Jean, who brings an adult edge and look to her mid-teen body and personality. Jean also openly and dangerously flirts with trouble as part of her own rebellion and confusion of the adult battles going on around her.
Sister Number Two is another Oklahoma escapee, Karen, who has arrived from Florida with a fiancé no one knew about or has met (a slick and sleazy, smooth-talking Joshua Hollister as Steve Heidebrecht, who happens to like weed and teenage girls). Bouncing around the room as if all is rosy, Tanya Marie's Karen tries her hardest to be pleasing, perky and pleasant as she works hard to convince everyone that she has found the perfect mate (even if he has been married three times already). But looking closely at her eyes that dart nervously as lips suddenly curl to the side, it is clear Karen is not so naïve as to think that her love or her family's love is as real as she so desperately wants it to be.
Elena Wright is the forty-four-year-old middle sister Ivy, who has up to now remained in the same town as her parents but has mostly been ignored and ridiculed by her mother for not wearing make-up or donning a dress, and not finding a husband. Her Ivy is quiet, intensely observant, and slow to join in the family feud around her. Her withdrawal is partly due to a secret plan she has for her own escape from the family–a plan that will explode as more long-held secrets burst from a box not unlike Pandora's.
As Violet's sister Mattie Fae Aiken, Marie Shell is yet another highlight of the evening with a performance running a wide range of emotions, moods, and voice volume. At one moment, she is compassionate, chummy, and syrupy sweet; in the next she quickly transforms into a toxin-spilling viper. That is especially true when Mattie Fae refers to or speaks to her son, six-foot-tall "Little Charles" (Matthew Kropschot), who happens to be thirty-seven but has the social awkwardness and shy innocence of someone half his age.
As Sheriff Dean Gilbeau, Terrance Smith is a quiet, calming, even compassionate presence, reminding us that the turmoil inside this house is of its own doing–relationship breakdowns the members have orchestrated through lifetimes of deception, drinking, and drugs.
Watching all the goings-on and usually being the only real adult in the room is the Native American housekeeper, Johnna Monevata. L. Duarte is most impressive as her Johnna listens to horrific outpourings without any outward sign of judgment and watches fights, chases, and standoffs pretending not to notice. She also steps in and takes over with a swinging pan when evil shows his very ugly head. In a play where she is often referred to as "that Indian," her dignity and staying power through all the chaos, as well as the fact that she opens and closes the play, provide a powerful metaphor for the important and difficult role of Native Americans in our nation's history.
Kenneth Kelleher deftly directs the roller-coaster ride of the near three hours that pass as if only half that duration. Johnny Moreno's fight choreography somehow ensures no one on stage actually walks away injured after the many slaps, tackles, and tussles that occur. Madeline Berger highlights the subtle and not-so-subtle personalities and characteristics (as well as the oft-drastically changing demeanors) of the people we meet through her costume choices. Steve Schoenbeck (sound) sets the mood with his selection of Oakie-appropriate music and establishes the setting/action with well-placed, realistic effects. Bill Vujevich's simple but effective scenic design allows the action of the actors to be our main focus, while Maurice Vercoutere's lighting underscores mood and daytime shifts while often maintaining a hint of ominous in the surrounding and creeping shadows.
As she strokes the totally distraught Violet's head, Johnna repeatedly murmurs in the closing moments another T.S. Elliot quote, "This is the way the world ends." Fortunately for theatregoers now and in the future, with more productions like this not-to-be-missed San Jose Stage production, there will be no ending of Tracy Letts' August: Osage County.
August: Osage County runs through April 24, 2022, in production by San Jose Stage Company at The Stage, 490 South First Street, San Jose CA. For tickets and information, please visit www.thestage.org.