By Charles Brousse
You might not think that a three-hour play about family dysfunction would be so engaging that a good portion of the audience would probably be quite happy to keep it going for another hour or two. Yet, that was the feeling I had on opening night of Marin Theatre Company’s brilliant production of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County.
Recipient of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and that year’s Tony Award for Best Play, it is an artfully designed, amoral synthesis of tragedy and situational comedy. There are no heroes to celebrate in Letts’ world, nor victims to arouse our sympathies. No obvious comic situations, either. Instead, while the parade of misery on stage may be disturbing at first, it can easily transform into a hunger for just one more awful revelation.
Shadenfreude? Probably. But to enjoy watching Letts’ characters flop around like fish in a net, struggling to extricate themselves from dilemmas that are almost entirely of their own making is nothing to feel guilty about. Since most families have problems of one kind or another, it’s comforting to learn that the author’s own personal history (August is semi-autobiographical) and its dramatized echos are filled with more turmoil than most of us have ever imagined.
Of course, there’s more to it than that. Letts is a master storyteller who knows how to take the darker elements of present-day American popular culture—fraught daytime soaps, heavy-breathing Telemundo romances, voyeuristic films that fill moviehouses, real-life scandals, sex and violence that infect everyday society—and integrate them into a rewarding evening at the theater. That takes extraordinary skill.
Crisply directed by Jasson Minadakis, MTC’s excellent cast makes the most of this rich dramatic material. The first scene is the key to everything that follows. Will Marchetti, one of Marin’s favorite actors, portrays Beverly Weston, poet patriarch of the Weston clan, who leads off with a rambling, alcohol-infused discourse that includes references to fellow poets T.S. Eliot and John Berryman, interspersed with confessions about his addiction, fears of aging and approaching mortality. He describes years of battles with his force-of-nature-prescription-drug-addict wife Violet (Sherman Fracher) and how the two of them have reached a detente—“She takes pills and I drink.” Finally, perhaps aware that help of another kind may soon be needed, he hires Johnna (Kathleen Pizzo), a soulful young Native American girl, to be the family cook and housekeeper.
With these elements in place, Letts takes us off to the races. It’s five days later and Beverly has disappeared. Fearing the worst, the Weston clan gathers from near and far. These include Violet’s caustic sister, Mattie Fae (Anne Darragh), her long-suffering husband Charlie (Robert Sicular) and their repressed son “Little” Charles (Patrick Kelly Jones); Violet and Beverly’s three daughters, tough-minded Barbara (Arwen Anderson), her estranged husband Bill (David Ari) and their lonely teenage daughter Jean (Danielle Bowen); Karen (Joanne Lubeck) and her philandering fiance Steve (Peter Ruocco); and timid Ivy (Danielle Levin), whose dream is to run off to New York and start a new life with Little Charles.
Their worst fears are confirmed when Sheriff Deon Gilbeau (Ryan Tasker) brings news that Beverly’s boat and body have been found in a nearby lake. That initiates about an hour of furious back-biting, accusations, counter-accusations and recriminations, the likes of which I don’t think I’ve ever seen on an American stage. But, as I said before, once you get into the swing of things, it’s fun to watch. My only caveat about the production is that J.B. Wilson’s skeletal three-story scenic design, with its A-frame roofline and raked dining table in the center, creates an awkward playing space for actors.
August: Osage County may not be great literature, but it’s a huge achievement for Letts—and for Marin Theatre Company, as well.
NOW PLAYING: August: Osage County runs through October 9 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley; 415/388-5208; marintheatre.org.