August: Osage County is a family drama set in a house where the shades are always drawn, the AC’s off, and the air is still. For years, poet/educator Beverly Weston and his wife Violet have stagnated, making no progress, retreating into states of delusion and bitterness.
The setting is a complete contrast to the Village Playhouse, launching its tenth season with this indelibly entertaining play. The Playhouse has been unwilling to stagnate. Married founders David Reinwald and Keely Enright have discovered their own way to escape from reality, putting on musicals, magical realist fables, and TV and film adaptations along with the classics. Unlike the Westons, they understand that surviving isn’t enough; progression is just as important.
Their version of Osage County never stands still. It’s full of smart dialogue, vivid characters, deep themes, and potent drama. But there’s more to this production than its Tony and Pulitzer-winning text. Lesser companies would have settled for the play’s reputation to fill seats. Enright and Reinwald go the extra mile, with strong casting and an ambitious set. As one local director recently put it, they slave over their productions. Nowhere has this been more evident than in this production, which has been in the works for six months.
O.C. isn’t so much complex as heavily populated. When Beverly goes missing, a deluge of family members rush to Violet’s side. There’s Ivy (played by Angela White), the daughter who’s stuck close to home and resents her absentee sisters, especially Barbara (Cristy Landis). Barbara has a tough exterior but struggles to cope with her husband Bill’s (David Reinwald) infidelity. Karen (Tracy Abeles), is so excited about her fiancé Steve (Robin Burke) that she’s out of sync with her sisters. Johnna the housekeeper (Sierra Garland) bustles in the background, a constant reminder of Violet’s precarious health.
Violet (Samille Basler) spends most of the play verbally dissecting her daughters, picking at their faults and being honest in truly brutal ways. She chases down an endless supply of pills with short drags on her long cigarettes, a matriarch with mouth cancer dispensing acid justice to anyone who breaks her arcane house rules. She is by turns playful as a child, wicked as a witch, and, first thing in the morning, as weird and incoherent as a David Lynch dwarf.
Basler seizes her opportunity to play this mercurial character. She is utterly riveting and believable. Landis is equally strong as Barbara, taking responsibility for the emotional chaos unfolding around her. The Westons have plenty of flaws for Violet to target: the males are dopey or unfaithful, Ivy is in love with a close relative, Barbara’s daughter Jean (Katherine Chaney Long) smokes dope, and Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Mary Cimino) constantly knocks her son Little Charles (Josh Wilhoit). Because there are so many characters, the audience is kept on its toes as to who will get skewered or which revelation will be dealt with next.
Director Enright juggles all the subplots perfectly, and on the whole her casting choices are spot-on too. As in her previous play Dead Man’s Cellphone, Angela White flips a mousy character into a strong, well-rounded one. As the menfolk, Reinwald, Wilhoit, Nat Jones, Robin Burke, Tom Sterns, and Jeff Jordan all give their characters a solid authenticity in a handful of scenes. Chaney Long and Sierra Garland have shown greater range in past performances; here it’s as if Enright has told them to stay low-key. Only Cimino seems out of place, lacking the plausibility of her castmates.
Basler’s intense acting makes up for any shortcomings the show may have. Flaws and all, this is one of the best productions we’ve seen this year.
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