KELSEY REVIEW: ‘August: Osage County’ (CentralJersey.com Review)

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This review was written by Anthony Stoeckert of CentralJersey.com. The original review can be found here.

Pinnworth Productions’ staging of August: Osage County is thrilling. It is a top-shelf production of a wonderful play, with acting, directing, sets, and even some special effects, that all illustrate the heights that community theater can achieve.

That might be selling this show short. It shows how good theater can be, because you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better version of this play on any stage, community or professional.

Tracy Letts’ play made its Broadway debut in 2007, and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony. It tells the story of the Westons, a family that sets new standards for dysfunction.

augustosage2As the play opens, patriarch Beverly Weston (Peter Sauer) is interviewing Johnna Monevata (Jaci D’Ulisse) to work for the family, helping with cooking, cleaning and caring for his wife Violet (Sari Ruskin). The couple is a mess, though Beverly is a less dramatic mess. “I drink, my wife takes pills,” he says. Beverly wrote an acclaimed volume of poetry in the 1960s, but hasn’t published a word since. He spends his time on his boat, reading his books, and drinking.

Beverly tells Johnna that the job is pretty mundane. He doesn’t require much attention, “Thrive without it, in fact, sort of a human cactus,” is how he describes himself.

Violet, though has been “diagnosed with a touch of the cancer,” and needs to be driven to chemo treatments. She deals with horrible pain because of her mouth cancer, and takes an endless list of pills: “Valium, Vicodin, Darvon, Darvocet, Percodan, Percocet, Xanax for fun, OxyCotin in a pinch. Some Black Mollies once, just to make sure I was still paying attention. And of course Dilaudid. I shouldn’t forget Dilaudid,” Beverly says.

Johnna takes the job, and when Beverly goes missing a few weeks later, it becomes clear she was hired because Beverly needed someone to care for Violet in his absence.

augustosage1Beverly’s disappearance brings the family together: Violet and Beverly have three daughters: The oldest, Barbara (Laurie Hardy), is separated from her husband, Bill, (John Comegno) because he’s having an affair with a student. Their daughter, Jean (Rachel Lemos) smokes pot and is more concerned with watching an old movie on TV than family obligations. All three travel from their home in Colorado to be with Beverly in Oklahoma.

The middle daughter is Ivy (Sally Page). She’s shy, doesn’t date much, and hasn’t left town. Violet gets on her about her needing a man, and improving her looks. When Ivy says she doesn’t like to wear makeup, Violet tells her that all women need makeup. The only one who didn’t need it was Elizabeth Taylor, “and she wore a ton.”

Youngest daughter Karen (Kyla Mostello Donnelly) flies in from Florida with her fiancé, Steve (Joe Barry). Karen has struggled to find true love, and she’s convinced she has it with Steve. Or maybe she’s just telling herself that, because it’s clear Steve is a slime ball when he flirts with the teenaged Jean.

augustosagecountyvioletmattieAlso trying to help Violet are her sister, Mattie Fae (Donne Petito) and her husband Charlie (Jon Heron). Mattie is unusually harsh on their son Little Charles (Roman Sohor), but Charlie, who seems to be the only well-adjusted person in the group (aside from Johnna), lovingly defends his son. One other character is Deon (Zach Abraham), the town’s sheriff. He and Barbara dated in high school, and were supposed to attend the prom together, but Deon’s father ruined that night, the way he ruined a lot of things. Despite his upbringing, Deon is a good man, a decent sort.

Reading all of that — an alcoholic father, pill-popping mother, a husband cheating with a much younger woman, a slimy fiancés (and did I mention the two relatives who are dating each other?) — wouldn’t get me excited about seeing this. It all makes August: Osage County seem like a play with a bunch of walking quirks, not people we can relate to. The wonder of Mr. Letts’ play is that it features characters who are real people. They aren’t just a bunch of problems, they are living life, and through those lives they share truths about relationships, parenting, family, success and failure.

august-osage-logo1You’re not bound to find a better cast anytime soon. There isn’t a bad performance here, but some stand out. Ms. Ruskin is great as Violet, who is sometimes sadly spaced out from her meds, there are times when it seems Violet is barely in the room. But at other, more sober, moments she is smart, cunning and manipulative. When Barbara complains of her upbringing, Violet defends herself: her kids had better, much better, parents than she did. That’s an accomplishment.

Ms. Hardy is just amazing as Barbara, she’s frustrated with her husband, mother and her sisters, and that anger is there, but Ms. Hardy maintains the right tone, so that Barbara stays a strong character. The emotions bubble, but she manages to stay in control, and all that anger doesn’t stop Ms. Hardy from getting laughs with Barbara’s funny lines.

She and Mr. Comegno work wonderfully together, and Mr. Comegno is very convincing when Bill stands up to Barbara. Despite the fact that he’s a cheater, I still saw Bill as a caring father who’s trying (if failing) to do the right thing, even though he doesn’t have any moral ground to stand on. And Ms. Lemos and Mr. Barry do a terrific job with a very tricky scene.

Mr. Heron stands out as Charlie. The man who loves his son and his wife, even though they bicker. He has one hysterical moment during a dinner scene when Rachel says she doesn’t eat meat because when you eat meat, you eat the animal’s fear, and a powerful scene when Charlie stands up to his wife and proves he’s no pushover.

Speaking of that dinner scene, it’s the highlight of the play. It’s a tour-de-force moment for Ms. Ruskin, as Violet controls the room, talking about how she and Beverly planned on changing their will, so the daughters should let her have everything, except the stuff she doesn’t want. She confronts people, and makes them face themselves, and while she may look like someone who’s lost control, there’s a purpose behind every word she says. It’s painful and funny at the same time.

August: Osage County is a long play. With two intermissions, it runs more than three hours, but director Lou J. Stalsworth sets a terrific pace, and transitions are made smoothly and swiftly, so the show doesn’t lumber at all.

And the set, by KM Pinner, is magnificent, one of the best I’ve seen at Kelsey. A staircase leads to two rooms upstairs, where the characters of Jean and Johnna spend a lot of time. Downstairs features a dining area, a living area and an office. It’s all very detailed and realistic.

This is the second production of August: Osage County I’ve seen, and I loved the first version I saw as well. I’m a bit surprised by that, because I’m not a fan of dysfunctional family stories, but Mr. Letts’ play doesn’t dwell on a bunch of “woe is me” characters. And while all of these people are struggling, they’re trying.

To quote Barbara, “Thank God we can’t tell the future, we’d never get out of bed.” August: Osage County continues at Kelsey Theatre on the campus of Mercer County Community College, 1200 Old Trenton Road, West Windsor, through Jan. 17. Performances: Jan. 15-16, 8 p.m., Jan. 17, 2 p.m. Tickets cost $18, $16 seniors, $14 students and children (not recommended for young children);www.kelseyatmccc.org; 609-570-3333.

 

 

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