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By more than a couple of measures, Tracy Letts's August: Osage County was a towering achievement. Plaudits showered down on the original 2007 Broadway production as the script received both the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize during its 648-performance run. Though the playwright's previous work included such estimable pieces as Killer Joe and Bug, neither of these gripping works gave a hint of the splendor to come. Those earlier works were small-scale productions that took their energy from low-life eccentrics, Killer Joe packing five trashy characters into a mobile home and, even more claustrophobic, Bug squooshing its quintet into a seedy motel room. Osage takes us to a shambling three-story homestead on the Oklahoma prairie, peoples the stage with over a dozen characters, spinning a tale of family disintegration that stretches across three generations in three acts, clocking in at nearly three hours without the addition of two intermissions. Back in its previous location, Carolina Actors Studio Theatre presented a fine version of Killer Joe in 2009. Three months afterwards, CAST pulled off the technical feat of engineering the water world of Mary Zimmerman's adaptation of Ovid's Metamorphoses. With their current August: Osage, the grand opening event at their new site in Charlotte's funky North Davidson neighborhood, CAST has eclipsed both of these high-water marks.
CAST artistic director Michael Simmons and his son Robert tamed the technical challenges of Metamorphoses and its mysterious underwater entrances. But in Osage, Simmons père is directing actors who are as much as 25 feet in the air, so he has called upon a set designer with an architectural degree, Dee Blackburn. In its full-bodied, oddball angularity, Blackburn's is the best Osage set I've seen, including the Tony Award winner at the Imperial Theatre, where the Broadway production premiered. As for the cast, it is easily the strongest aggregation that Simmons has ever been able to muster for a single CAST production, nearly equaling the companies I saw on Broadway and – just seven weeks earlier this summer – at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
The story revolves around Violet, matriarch of the Westons. Married to an acclaimed poet whose young promise was never fulfilled, and suffering hideously from mouth cancer after a lifetime of chain-smoking, Violet responds with flamboyant defiance. She's still chain-smoking, washing away the pain with a river of pharmaceuticals. As the family gathers around her, more layers of ancient animosities and forbidden intimacies bubble to the surface – and Violet's meanness and pugnacity touch off much of the fireworks. Polly Adkins isn't as mean or indomitable as Deanna Dunnigan was in her Tony-winning performance. Nor is she as easy to empathize with as Judith-Marie Bergan was in the markedly different Violet on view in Oregon. Slurring her speech and visibly staggering more – from her first nocturnal Lady Macbeth entrance onwards – Adkins is more believably drug-addled than the others, and her mighty endurance is tempered with a childish petulance. As Violet's eldest daughter Barbara, leader of the rebellion against Mom's dominion, Paula Baldwin is similarly credible and contained. Unlike the other Barbaras I've seen, Baldwin doesn't thunder like Gen. Patton at the end of Act 2, but her "I'm running things now!" resonates with a vicious satisfaction. On these and other fronts, this is a titanic Broadway drama reduced to a human off-Broadway scale. A bit of the power is exchanged for added intimacy and cinematic realism.
Yes, there are moments that could be more effectively pointed. The chemistry between Anne Lambert and Charles LaBorde, as Violet's carping sister Mattie Faye and her lovably vulgar and commonsensical husband Charlie, could use some sharpening, particularly at their big moment. Still there was no doubting their earnest energies on opening night: LaBorde's adrenalin peaked for his final exit as he slammed the front door so hard that the screen flew off! Unfazed by the damage, Baldwin nearly tore the hinges off the door when she slammed her way out later in Act 3. Brett Gentile, as Barbara's urbanely philandering husband Bill, turned out to be the hero who cleared the fallen screen from everyone's path. He and Tony Wright, playing the sleazeball fiancé of the youngest Weston daughter, were the casting choices that gave me the most misgivings, so their against-the-grain performances yielded unexpected satisfactions. All three of the Weston daughters were very fine individually, Jennifer Hubbard as the spinsterish doormat Ivy and Frances Bendert as the ditzy hedonistic baby Karen were as finely sketched as Baldwin's Barbara – it's only their ease and bonding as sisters that needs fine-tuning.
Make no mistake, however, Simmons' direction is far more bold and visionary than usual, and CAST's experiential style of production has never worked better. The most masterful Simmons stroke occurs at the top of the evening, where he gives the Native American hoping to be the Westons' new cook and housekeeper, Johnna Moneveta, an entrance of her own. Instead of starting out as Johnna's prospective employer, rambling on to the applicant in a mundane interview, poet Beverly Weston now seems to be addressing us, his literary locutions striking us as those of a pleasingly soused, avuncular host. Just as important as Bev's added stature is Johnna's, for her entrance is subtly augmented by the Native American fluting that suffuses the sound design from beginning to end (uncredited in the playbill, but likely Simmons'). We're more alert to the Native American aspect of the drama because of the array of tepees and spidery dream catchers that greet us in lobby, customized for this production in typical CAST fashion. As a result, the disintegration of the Westons begins to strike us like a mystical inevitability, emblematic of the consequences White America richly deserves for its original sin against the prairie's rightful inhabitants.
George Gray, at his scruffy best in his cameo as Bev, and Karen Roberts-Caporino as Johnna beautifully frame the long, long evening with a pair of brief, brief quotes from T.S. Eliot. Something mystical is afoot at the end of the opening scene when Bev bestows a book of Eliot's poems upon Johnna before his mystifying disappearance. Roberts-Caporino is holding that book up in her attic room at the end. Her serene dignity throughout the evening, accentuated in the heat of Act 3 when she reacts decisively to a rape-in-progress, ensures that the valedictory words from Eliot's "The Hollow Men" do not ring hollow. Thanks to Simmons' deft touches, a forlorn flutiness magnifies their resonance.
This show runs through September 24. For details, see the sidebar.