REVIEW: An exciting ‘August: Osage County’
ST. PETERSBURG — You don’t need to see Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County” because it’s the biggest show in American Stage’s 33-year history. It’s reason enough that this Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winner is one of the best American plays in decades, and the play’s powerful area premiere crackles with the drama of real life.
In the tradition of O’Neill and Williams, Letts has created a dark and surprisingly comedic look at a dysfunctional family gathered together after the disappearance of the patriarch, Beverly Weston. Hidden feelings get drawn out as the family shouts, fights, mixes and tangles with a wonderful naturalness in the gripping production staged by Todd Olson in the large Palladium Theatre. In the process we see how family problems carry from one generation to the next, no matter how much we may fight them.
The cast is led by by Lisa McMillan, who will be remembered by Sarasota audiences for her roles in Florida Studio Theatre’s “Shear Madness” and “The Savannah Disputation.” She displays far more layers here — fierceness, loss and an undertone of tenderness — as the pill-popping Violet Weston.
She is surrounded by an equally strong cast of American Stage veterans that includes the marvelous Julie Rowe as the oldest daughter, Barbara, who really makes you feel every emotional twist she experiences dealing with a troubled marriage and her mother’s problems. Katherine Michelle Tanner draws you into her role as the meek middle daughter, Ivy, who tries to assert herself with disastrous results. Meg Heimstead gets a few strong moments as the youngest daughter, Karen, who works to cover up her own relationship problems.
Karel Wright as Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae, is the dark comic relief. She’s like a bitter Paula Deen — a sheen of sugary sweetness barely masking the angry lioness inside, always ready with a cutting word for her slacker son, Charlie. Joe Parra is friendly as her get-along husband, who wins cheers when he finally expresses long-suppressed feelings.
There are also involving performances from Michael Edwards as Beverly Weston, Sarah McAvoy as Barbara’s adolescent daughter, Steve Garland as her father, Wayne LeGette as Karen’s creepy fiance, Kerry Glamsch as a sweet sheriff, Brian Shea as Charlie Jr. and Tia Jemison as a housekeeper.
It all plays out on Scott Cooper’s impressive multi-level house, a homey structure that reveals lots of bitter secrets in the faded photos and the paint on the walls.
During the play’s fast-moving three-plus hours, you may feel like you’re passing by a horrific car crash that you can’t stop watching for the humanity, pain and suffering involved. It’s a tragedy but richly funny, filled with strong language, frightening and ultimately enlightening.
Olson, who is starting his ninth season as producing artistic director, has clearly taken American Stage in new and expanding directions that have only made it more worthy of a drive to downtown St. Petersburg.
Though the strong language may offend some, this fast-moving three-hour play is a tragedy that is richly funny, frightening and ultimately enlightening.
“August” is a daring choice for the theater company because of its scope and the ways it tests an audience that is probably accustomed to far more intimate productions at American Stage’s home base in the Raymond James Theatre. But Olson, who is starting his ninth season as producing artistic director, has taken American Stage in new and expanding directions, mixing challenging, new works with classics and far more audience-friendly productions that have only made the theater company more worthy of a drive to downtown St. Petersburg.