“April, Come She Will,” by Paul Simon is a song using the months of the year as metaphors, and when he gets to August, he no longer seems to feel the promise of spring and early summer, but only the sense that the year is now in decline, “dying.” That was more or less my experience last night at the Gaslight’s Theatre’s production of August: Osage County. I felt like the much-lauded Tracy Letts play wasn’t entirely well-served by the company, but there are good reasons for that, which I’ll get to in the course of this review.
In a small Oklahoma town 60 miles outside Tulsa, Beverly Weston (Larry Dell), poet-professor, perhaps intellectual, sits in his study. He is fond of quoting his favorite poet, T.S. Eliot and holds forth at length about Eliot’s work when he’s interviewing a member of the Cheyenne Nation, Johnna Monevata (Wendy Renee Farmer) about helping care for his ill wife, Violet Weston (Kari Ely) who has mouth cancer, which is ironic because she has spent a lifetime spewing vitriol. He even gives the young woman a volume of Eliot’s verse to peruse, and she reads it throughout the play at various intervals. The volume becomes a kind of totemic representation of Beverly himself, even if unlike Eliot, he is a one-hit wonder, whose prize winning collection of poems, Meadlowlark, won much acclaim upon its release. He seems to have spiraled into depression and alcoholism which have rendered him incapable of duplicating the quality of that early work.
But he can talk, and talk he does. One of the first weaknesses one notices here is the lack of anything to do for Johnna. Director Wayne Salomon, one of the very best in town, made some unusual directorial choices here, and this one may be based in Johnna’s character as the calm in the center of the storm. She stands there, presumably self-possessed, while he rattles on, but rather than appearing serene, she merely looks uncomfortable. And she has to do this more than once while others preach and rant around her. But whatever her demeanor, she can be grateful she isn’t a member of this family because they are a mess.
Violet and her sister, Maddie Fae Aiken (an excellent Kim Furlow) are a couple of mean girls who are now in late middle-age but haven’t risen above their nightmarish childhoods with a claw-hammer wielding mother at the center. But they, too, grew up to be terrible mothers, except their weapons were and are found in their viperous tongues, not the tool box. Maddie Fae is married to the ineffectual Charlie (William Roth) and her son is 37-year-old “Little Charles” (Stephen Peirick) whose learned helplessness seems more a product of his father’s indulgence than his mother’s contempt.
The Aikens have arrived to support Violet during her husband’s disappearance and subsequent suicide discovered days later. The news is delivered by the local sheriff, Deon Gilbeau (GP Hunsaker). This revelation gives nothing away since it all happens in the first act and it would be hard to talk about the rest of the play while trying to hide that central fact of the Weston family dynamic. A 40-plus year survivor of a long war with Violet, it would seem that Beverly has just taken the coward’s way out, or at least that’s how Vi would see it, but as always in this dense play, there is more to his action than simply that.
One by one, the Weston daughters arrive. Ivy (Emily Baker), the middle child, is a librarian living just down the road. She has never married and has spent by far the most time with her parents than her two sisters. Eldest Barbara Fordham (Meghan Baker, magnificent in this role) brings her mordant sense of humor, her estranged husband Bill (David Wassilak) and 14-year-old daughter, Jean (a miscast Bridgette Bassa), whose behavior is stereotypical on steroids. Jean smokes cigarettes and pot, alludes to sexual experiences and drinking, and has a smart, Weston-style mouth on her. She has bonded with her father over old films, but bonded with her mother over nothing. Bassa says all the right things with the requisite Valley Girl inflections, but despite her small stature, she is just too old for the part. Wassilak, another professor, seems detached, as is appropriate for his character, caught in a place he doesn’t want to be with people he doesn’t much care for, until the crisis passes and he can get back to his teenage girlfriend.
Act II brings youngest daughter Karen (Rachel Fenton), the family flibbertigibbet, trailing her fiancé, Steve Heidebrecht (Drew Battles), thrice-married already and extremely interested in young Jean. For Karen, his appeal seems to lie in his willingness to take her to the Caribbean for their honeymoon, a long-time dream. She is a real-estate agent, but not too successful, it seems, and Barbara is a teacher. Both oldest and youngest couldn’t get far enough away fast enough. One of the best scenes in the play, the most worthy of the material, comes a couple of hours in when the three are up late talking honestly about their sisterly bonds or lack thereof. While cynical Ivy claims they share nothing but DNA, their exchange of confidences as sisters do belies her opinion. It is also here that Emily Baker seems to solidly fix her character as she reveals Ivy’s truth, and she stays believably grounded in it until the end.
The sister-scene shows what this tragicomedy can be, but a lot of things here show what it is not, and the problems start, I believe, with the set. Patrick Huber has made another miracle on the Gaslight’s petite stage, a three-story farmhouse, with all levels visible. But the space simply does not work. The cast seems to have needed a traffic cop just as much as a director, through I’m sure sage manager Amy Paige is doing her best to maintain order. Salomon may be trying to make a point about life being claustrophobic chez Weston, but if so, that doesn’t come across as much as the sense than these people, who are making awkward entrances and exits during blackouts, are in constant danger of crashing into each other. It’s distracting and limiting. It even appears that Johnna and Vi sleep in the same attic, which they do not. A dinner table scene looks more like a game of musical chairs since not everyone can sit down at once, but at least that scene culminates in a marvelous moment between Vi and Barbara, who makes it very clear that there is now a new sheriff in town, and the torch isn’t passed to the younger woman so much as it is wrested from the older woman by brute force.
And so to Vi. Kari Ely is among the top actresses we have in an abundant pool of local talent. She is a true triple threat as a singer/dancer/actor. She has matured into the juicy roles that she’s recently been collecting like charms on a bracelet. Just in the last few years, Ely has played the iconic Mary Tyrone who shares addiction issues with Vi, Martha in “Virginia Woolf” who is an alcoholic AND a bitch, and now Violet Weston who has all of the vices of Mary and Martha, but none of their redeeming qualities. To that extent, Ely is very good. She doesn’t pander to us for sympathy or even empathy. She and Salomon have created a character who is unabashedly awful. Yet she seems uncomfortable with all of it. Perhaps she’s accustomed to showing some vulnerability, and she has characteristic expressions and gestures which, when used here, simply don’t fit the behavior Vi exhibits up until the end when she has to reap what she has sown. Ely works very hard, is prodigiously talented, and yet not quite attuned to this role.
There is a lot of humor here, but what this audience seemed to find funniest was Vi’s behavior, and it’s really not. Yes, she says funny things, but in our post-Foster Brooks world, laughing at addiction is uncomfortable. Also, I hadn’t noticed before that the play itself seems rather misogynistic, despite its numerous roles for women. Mothers seem to work hard to defeat their children and diminish their husbands, while fathers defend them—a reversal of the usual paradigm. In the larger picture, a big problem is the pacing throughout, or so it appears. Salomon knows the play is long, but shaving off 10 or 15 minutes by racing through it does everyone a disservice.
There is an unevenness about the production overall. This might have been an opening-night thing or even just an off-night for them because there is no question that all these people, in front of the lights and behind them are consummate pros. You may have a completely different experience than I did, and I hope you do. I want this play to be better than what I saw, and I’m confident it can be. Unfortunately, I simply couldn’t see the whole of the dance because the dancers seemed out of step with each other too much of the time, at least at this particular performance.
August: Osage County runs at the Gaslight Theatre on Boyle through April 30, 2017. There are two intermissions, which help break up the three-plus hour piece. You can get more information at www.stlas.org.