George Washington was known for never telling a lie. But telling the truth — even the so-called truth — can be a hazardous path, as evidenced by the meltdown of the Weston family, who populate Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play, August: Osage County. It’s the current production of Clifton Players.
In the three-act play’s prologue, we meet Beverly Weston (Buz Davis, who also directed this production), intellectual husband of angry, pill-popping Violet (Dale Hodges) and father of three unhappy, contentious daughters, Ivy (MaryKate Moran), Barbara (Carol Brammer) and Karen (Mindy Heithaus). He’s drinking steadily as he cites despondent, gloomy lines from T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” and talks to Johnna Monevata (Leah Strasser) about looking after his cancer-stricken wife. She taciturnly listens while he rambles; Violet wanders in to spew the first of many outbursts of drug-addled bile.
So begins one of the most formidable plays of the 21st century, made even more intense by being wedged into the cramped quarters of Clifton Performance Theatre on Ludlow Avenue, with seating for about 40 audience members. There’s no escape from the Westons’ poisonous dysfunction: Watching this production, you’re all but engaged in the family feuds, bad behavior, lies and secrets. The performers are never more than a few feet away, and you can feel the full force of their emotions as you watch.
August: Osage County was originally staged (at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and then on Broadway) on a large three-story set showing various rooms and levels of the Westons’ rambling, deteriorated home. In CPT’s cramped space you have to use your imagination a tad more — for instance, Johnna’s attic bedroom is a mere platform reached by a ladder behind two rows of audience seats. But the close quarters are not an hindrance; in fact, the power of this very engaging production comes from the uncomfortable proximity to the action, forcing the audience to all but share in the angry proceedings.
Beverly, a failed poet, goes missing after the prologue. (Given his state of mind, it’s no surprise when he turns up dead in the next act.) His middle-aged daughters and their own fractious families converge in response to the family tragedy. Already present is Violet’s pushy, loudmouth sister Mattie Fae (Christine Dye). Before long the pot is boiling. Ivy has been the dutiful daughter, keeping her life on hold for years while tending to her battling parents and their ills and idiosyncrasies and being badgered for not marrying; she’s sick of the miasma of bad behavior and more than eager to escape.
Domineering Barbara arrives from Colorado with her wayward husband Bill (Kevin Crowley) in tow, as well as her precocious, disgruntled daughter Jean (Sarah White). Then Karen swoops in from Miami, after years of disconnect from the family while she sold real estate — and perhaps her charms — while living the high life. With her is her multiply married fiancé, Steve (Nathan Neorr), obviously a slippery sexual predator.
Mattie Fay’s nice-guy husband Charlie (Bob Allen) is sick of her critical attitude toward their fail-to-launch son, “Little Charles” (Carter Bratton).
In the play’s second act, with 11 testy people sitting down to an uneasy dinner, Violet begins to attack just about everyone present, in addition to her late husband. “I’m just truth-telling,” she spits out. “Some people get antagonized by the truth.” Boy, do they.
The ultimate result is a family donnybrook, with Barbara forcing her mother into rehab. There’s still another act of bad behavior, emotional highjacking and desertion, ultimately leaving Violet desolate and alone with only Johnna to comfort her.
August: Osage County is one juicy show for good actors, and Davis has assembled a Grade-A cast. Hodges captures Violet’s vituperative nature, but allows a few cracks in her cantankerous façade to reveal the once vulnerable woman inside. Brammer’s Barbara appears to be Violet-in-training, seemingly unable to escape the role model she’s been watching all her life. As Ivy, Moran evinces bone-tired frustration with her plight, and as Karen, Heithaus motors through monologues of drivel about her life that make it apparent she’s in denial about what’s really going on. Dye’s character, Mattie Fae, seems like comic relief at first, but the nastiness under the sugar soaks through. Allen gives texture as her husband; Bratton’s Little Charles doesn’t have so much to do, although he’s a catalyst for a shocking revelation.
The show’s three-plus hours fly by. If you go, you’ll be weary when it’s over, but you’ll know you’ve seen one hell of a powerful play memorably staged.
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, presented by Clifton Players, continues through March 13.