Produced by: Pear Theatre
Directed by: Jeanie K. Smith
Featuring: Bill C. Jones, Roneet Aliza Rahamim, Diane Tasca, Leslie Newport Wright, Gary D. Mosher, Janine Saunders Evans, Betsy Kruse Craig, Michael Champlin, Vivian Pride, Keith Larson, Marjorie Hazeltine, Dan Kapler, Max Tachis
Running time: 180 minutes, two intermissions
When: June 24 through July 10, 2016
Where: Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida Street, Mountain View, California
Tickets: $10-$35. Call 1-650-254-1148 or visit www.thepear.org.
'August: Osage County'
Pulitzer Prize-winning drama to life
It's a testament to Tracy Letts' brilliant script, Jeanie K. Smith's taut direction and an excellent cast that there is no time to feel much but exhilaration and admiration for Pear Theatre's production of "August: Osage County."
Smith's direction zips us through the show in three hours (including two, ten-minute intermissions), which might sound like a long time, but it doesn't feel that way.
Every moment in the theater feels right.
After all, when the show opened on Broadway in 2007, it ran even longer. Christopher Isherwood of the New York Times said, "more than three blissful hours."
But not to worry: Nothing has been cut, Smith assured me.
"I didn’t trim a word," she told me via email after opening night. "I wanted the pacing to really move the show along, with very fast shifts from scene to scene, in order to bring out both the humor and the contradictions."
The play debuted at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago in June of 2007, then moved to Broadway later that year, running for about a year and a half and winning a lot of awards, including the Drama Desk and Tony for best play, and a Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Thank you, Mr. Letts, for the bits of humor in "August: Osage County," and thank you, Ms. Smith, for making sure we get to see them, because otherwise this is a grim evisceration of a toxic family, with all the guts and blood laid out before us like an operating table, with the patient kicking and screaming.
It is brilliant, totally engrossing drama.
A prologue opens, with Beverly Weston, a poet of one modestly successful book, hiring Johnna, a Cheyenne woman, to take care of his wife, Violet.
"She takes pills and I drink," he says.
Bill C. Jones is excellent in the role, which doesn't last very long, with a wise glint of irony in his eyes. But in that opening segment, we meet the reason he drinks, Violet, who is powerfully, brilliantly, stunningly played by Diane Tasca.
When we see her enter as Violet at the top of the stairs at stage right, we think or, at least, I thought "Man! How is anyone that fucked up going to get down those stairs by herself?"
But she does, and proceeds to give one of the strongest dramatic performances I've seen. She doesn't actually chew the scenery that old saw of theatrical description she chews up every other actor in the cast, which is exactly what the play demands.
She is a virago, a termagant, a harridan. She is vicious to her children, and feels sorry for herself.
She is the bitch of all bitches, and a key to the central theme of this show, which is that bad mothers beget bad mothers.
And yet, we see her tragedy, we see her pain. And we see how her bitter pride overrides everything, especially any love she might have for anybody else.
Beverly disappears, which calls for a gathering of his three daughters Barbara, who teaches in Colorado; Ivy, who is a librarian in the family's Oklahoma town, and Karen, the youngest, who's been living in Florida.
Barbara is played by Betsy Kruse Craig, whose beautiful hair should get its own biography in the cast list. Craig is tall, and her long, wavy auburn hair has never looked better nor been used to better effect than in this show. When Craig runs her hand through her hair, it adds a strong extra layer to the power of the scene.
And she has plenty of powerful scenes, because she becomes the one most forced to deal with her vicious mother.
Craig and Tasca tear the joint down in shocking scene after shocking scene.
It is theater nirvana to watch these two actors.
Barbara also has plenty of drama in her own family, which is coming apart. Her husband, Bill, has been fooling around with one of his college students, a woman "Still young enough to wear a retainer!" Michael Champlin (who was excellent in "The Beard of Avon" in April), plays Bill well, unpeeling his layers as the story presses on.
Their daughter Jean, a smart, dope-smoking cinephile 14-year-old, is played with considerable skill by Vivian Pride, a member of Homestead High School's drama club; she is Craig's daughter in real life.
It is Barbara who is left with the play's most important, implied question: Can she learn to be a better mother to Jean than Vi was to her?
Janine Saunders Evans is excellent as Ivy, Vi's second daughter, the one who stayed in Oklahoma to help her parents, and who suffers the most vicious of Vi's bitter vituperation. There is nothing she does that is not acidicly attacked by her mother, and her very posture shows the weight of it she's borne all these years.
The youngest daughter, Karen, is played by the excellent and stunningly beautiful Marjorie Hazeltine (wonderful in "Dead Man's Cell Phone" at Los Altos Stage in September 2015).
Karen is very excited about her new fiance, Steve, who is a glad-hander who does not inspire confidence for anyone but her. Sure, her dad is missing and probably dead, but she really wants to tell everybody how happy she is about Steve, and his plans to take her to Belize.
Part of the excellence of the casting and direction of this show is in the three sisters Barbara, with that wavy, beautiful, long, auburn hair; Karen with a stunning headful of long, bright, curly red hair, and Ivy, with straightened, mousy brown hair and no makeup.
According to Vi, Ivy is doing everything wrong, and will never get a man. But, as we learn, Ivy is strong of character, and will do the right thing for herself and her man regardless of her mother's poisonous ways.
One of the powerful subplots is Steve, the shady beau of Karen, hitting on 14-year-old Jean. It makes for a few very, very creepy, skin-crawling scenes. Kudos to Dan Kaplan and Pride for making those scenes work. Fine, brave performances by both.
Part of the bitch-begets-bitch theme of this show is Leslie Newport Wright, who plays Mattie, Vi's evil-hearted sister, with considerable nastiness and presence. It turns out that Vi and Mattie's mother was pretty damned nasty herself. Gary D. Mosher is excellent as her husband, Charlie, who does his best to bring some niceness to the toxic stew of this family.
Max Tachis, a regular at City Lights in San Jose, where he was a solid piece of the Mark Anderson Phillips-directed "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" in September, shows again his considerable talent as Little Charlie, brow-beaten son of Mattie.
Roneet Aliza Hahamim, who was allowed to be beautiful as Chloe in "Arcadia," back in June 2015 at the Pear, is kept rather unassuming in this, as the Cheyenne housekeeper and cook. She bats .1000 in one of the show's best scenes.
Keith Larson is solid and appealing as Deon Gilbeau, the sheriff who brings the bad news about Beverly's death, and who was Barbara's prom date in high school.
Part of the speed of this production is probably owed to the set, by Janny Coté. It's all there in front of us, for the entire show, from Beverly's office to the living room, fold-out couch to the dining room, to the stairs, the upstairs landing and Johnna's room.
Edward Hunter's lights come up here for one scene, then over there for some other scene, as actors arrive via several entrances for this scene and that.
It made for efficiency, but it also made for some moments of creepy darkness, and the need to keep heads swiveling like at Wimbledon. And that several actors, sitting at a dinner table, had their backs to the audience for too long, while concurrently keeping some other actors hidden.
And ... when a nice song is played at the piano, it is with actors' backs turned to us.
But those cavils are forgotten in the presence of so many astounding performances.
Don't miss this show.
Email John Orr at email@example.com