Sunday, August 19, 2007

August: Osage County (The SOB Review)

August: Osage County (The SOB Review) - Downstairs Theatre, Steppenwolf, Chicago, IL

**** (out of ****)

As regular readers know, I employ a four-star system to rate the live stage productions I see. Four stars are strictly reserved for the best of the best.

However, if I could defy my own rules, I'd give August: Osage County five stars. Under the exceptionally sure and steady guiding hand of Anna D. Shapiro, it's that hot of a show. And the direction isn't the only thing that's sweltering on the stage.

By far the best-written, best-acted play I've ever seen at Chicago's Steppenwolf -- and that's no small feat -- August: Osage County is ensemble member Tracy Letts' masterpiece.

It's mesmerizing.

To say it's the most excellent stage production I've seen this year would be a gross understatement.

While it would be far too easy to think of this as some modern-day version of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, the three-hour, 20-minute family saga is at once chilling and funny. Letts, an Okahoma native, ingeniously paints a picture of life that's both bleak and vital in the immense, rural area to the northwest of Tulsa where temperatures easily soar in the eighth month of each year.

August: Osage County centers on a heavy-drinking poet Beverly Weston (Dennis Letts, the playwright's father, in a subtle poignant portrayal who haunts the play long after his lone appearance) and his venomous drug-addled wife Violet (a breathtakingly potent Deanna Dunagan, pictured, in the single most important performance I've seen yet this year).

Despite Violet's often delusory state, she manages to retain an iron grip on the roost, lording over her three daughters -- Ivy (Sally Murphy oozing neuroses), who yearns to break free of her mother's tight tether by skipping town with cousin Little Charles (Ian Barford at his most complex); Colorado-based Barbara (Amy Morton at her most deliciously high-strung), whose visit home is complicated by her rocky relationship with husband Bill (Steppenwolf co-founder Jeff Perry in a wonderful welcome return); and Miami-based Karen (Mariann Mayberry , glorious in her vulnerability) whose pronouncements that she's living in the here and now, complete with the specious declaration that she no longer lets anything get her down, come across more as protestations of the "too much" variety.

Violet's tentacles also suck in her own seemingly clueless sister Mattie Fay (Rondi Reed in a delectable departure from portraying Madame Morrible in Chicago's Wicked) and her husband Charlie (a wonderfully obtuse Francis Guinan).

My first twinge in realizing just how excellent this production would be was in the opening scene. Beverly is not so much interviewing Johnna (Kimberly Guerrerro), a mysterious young native American woman, for a housekeeping position as much as he's preparing her for the tumult she's about to face in the wake of his departure. He's long-since resigned to losing his battle with the bottle and his wife's addictions to the many drugs she takes, yet he wants to leave Violet in caring hands. During their conversation, Violet makes her first incoherent drug-hazed entrance, and it becomes clear that Johnna will have her hands full.

Once Beverly is gone, the rest of the family descends on the home, which is fraught with bombshell after bombshell, which of course are impossible to sweep under the rug. But the biggest revelation is just how handily this superb ensemble moves from humor to pathos.

Ann G. Wrightson's creative lighting design illuminates everything unseen from the television that various characters use in trying to escape their hellhole to the flashing lights of a squad car that arrives with news of Beverly. Richard Woodbury, who ironically worked on the last Broadway revival of Long Day's Journey Into Night, offers a sound design that heightens the tension. And Todd Rosenthal's three-story set design turns this home into the powder keg it actually is while offering its characters no real isolation from each other -- with the notable exception of Johnna's third-floor sanctuary.

I've already heard rumor that this Steppenwolf world premiere play is already being touted for consideration by the Pulitzer Prize committee and that a Broadway transfer may be a real possibility. However, my strong recommendation is to do everything you can to see this modern-day, sure-to-be classic with its impeccable current cast.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.

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At 20 August, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, this sounds pretty amazing, a big, meaty, multigenerational drama about a dysfunctional family, involving lots of secrets. Sounds like it's one of the best American plays you've seen in years.

How closely do you think it resembles a real family drama? I was just thinking about that because you mentioned bombshell after bombshell. Is it over the top, or is it something that you see and recognize aspects of families you've known?

I wonder what its prospects would be on Broadway, given the length, the fact that it's a serious play, and the lack of recognizable stars? If it does get to New York, and I certainly hope it does, would the Steppenwolf cast come with it?

At 21 August, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Steppenwolf production, lock stock and barrel, is, according to reliable sources, going to the Imperial theatre on Broadway this fall.

At 22 August, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Esther, This is one of the best plays I've seen in years.

What gives the play so much oomph (and driving wit) is that there is plenty to recognize in our own extended families to be sure. It's never over the top at all.

I think its prospects on Broadway are excellent. Its cast is top-rate, and as we now know, every one of them is transferring with the production.

Finally, to anonymous, your reliable sources were indeed correct!


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