By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
It seems hard to believe it’s been more than a decade since Tracy Letts won his Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Tony Award for Best Play and a similar Drama Desk Award for August: Osage County. Almost as incredulous is that this heartfelt tale of family dysfunction took that long to arrive on a stage in New Orleans.
Thankfully, Southern Rep has remedied this oversight with its current production on the boards from now through October 6 at its Bayou Road theater.
According to producing artistic director Aimée Hayes, part of the reason it took so long to come to a Southern Rep stage was the lack of a tall enough performing space with high enough ceilings to accommodate additional floors in the stage design as called for in the script. The new performing space – the former St. Rose de Lima Church – more than meets that bill.
While there are capable companies in New Orleans, no one seems as well-equipped in all the ways that count as Southern Rep, who has consistently proven itself to be the leader in our area of bringing new works of drama to light.
Just a word of warning. August: Osage County is not a fast food type of play where one stops by and avails himself of a morsel of two and moves on quickly. No, think of this as a three-course repast with an appetizer, entree and massive dessert that must be savored just as it was prepared, simmering over a long time.
This is a play that begins with a simple foundation. We find ourselves in the heart of rural Oklahoma in what appears to be recent times thrust into a darkened, old multi-level home. Inside, an elderly resident, Beverly Weston (Thomas Francis Murphy), is interviewing Johnna (Ilyanette Bernabel), a young Native-American woman for a position as a caretaker and cook for his wife. She seems to be paying rapt attention to his every word.
This prologue gives us insight into Beverly’s earlier success as a poet and a hint of the family he has created, but from whom he is distant and alienated. He finds solace in his whiskey, he explains, freely admitting to being an unabashed alcoholic. By contrast, his wife Violet (Ellen Barry) enjoys popping pills to ease her plight, he confides. She has been battling mouth cancer and in a short, highly-charged, drug-fueled and nonsensical exchange with Beverly, we see her as quite disturbed.
The reason for his hire of Johnna becomes apparent once Act I gets underway as Beverly has gone missing. His disappearance becomes the reason for his family members to gather to support their drug-addled and abusive mother. As sisters Barbara (Aimée Hayes), Karen (Jenny Mercein) and Ivy (Mandy Zirkenbach) arrive, they are each treated to hurtful doses of vitriolic speech from their mother for various reasons.
The sisters, weary from their abusive relationship with their mother, are also busy keeping secrets from one another and their mother. Each secret alone would be scandalous enough, but in concert with one another, they threaten the very fabric of the family.
As Violet, Ellen Barry is an incredibly gifted actor, who balances her character’s many layers brilliantly. She is seemingly psychotic, mean-spirited, uncaring and abusive in one breath, while at other times calm, sweet-natured, intuitive and protective in another. In one scene, Violet reflects on an isolated example of her own mother’s horrible upbringing for her. “My momma was a mean, nasty old woman. I suppose that’s where I got it from,” she admits.
Barry’s Violet serves as a perfect foil to Hayes’ character of Barbara. Violet accuses Barbara of having abandoned her family years earlier and broken her missing father’s heart. Barbara is already dealing with a philandering husband Bill (Lance Nichols) and an out-of-control teenager Jean (Raina Houston) and they are separated. However, they arrive together as a constructed ruse by Barbara to keep a united front.
Hayes is the one sister with the strength and tenacity to stand up to her abusive mother, but as she moves in, she finds her world is about to spin completely out of kilter. Hayes delivers a powerful performance as Barbara; nuanced and understated at times, she is invariably at others times plunged into sheer physicality and outward struggle with her fellow cast members.
While in bed and still trying to keep up appearances with her husband Bill, Barbara shows she still hopes for a reconciliation. As Bill, Nichols shows no sign of warming up to her, despite his support for her during the family crisis. He sends her a hopeful overture to Barbara that her father will be found. “My father’s dead,” she replies with no hesitancy.
Her belief proves to be correct as Dean (Troy Poplous), the local sheriff and Barbara’s high school senior prom date, rings the bell in the early morning hour to inform the family. As Act I ends, we see Violet ranting at her husband and befuddled under the influence of pills.
Letts is a master wordsmith. He reveals the remainder of the family’s secrets in Acts II and III. Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Lara Grice) arrives on the scene with her husband Charlie (Robert Larriviere) and son Little Charles (Nick Thompson) in tow. Uncharacteristically, Violet has nothing to say but supportive and kind things about Mattie Fae, especially at the family dinner following the funeral.
Barbara’s other sisters Karen (Jenny Mercein) and Ivy (Mandy Zirckenbach) add to the drama. Both give very fine supportive performances.
Newly engaged, Karen, who blames everyone else for her previous poor choices in men, brings her fiancé Steve (John Neisler) with her. Outwardly Steve appears to be the perfect choice for Karen, but he displays an unhealthy attraction to Barbara’s teenager daughter Jean, foreshadowing things to occur later in the play.
Zirkenbach as Ivy is the constant target of her mother’s attacks because she lives nearby. Violet berates her for her choices in clothing and her lack of a man in life. Letts allows her secret to spill over into Act III, where it has repercussions for the entire family.
Directed by Jason Kirkpatrick, this production is one of the best to grace a Southern Rep stage. The performances are all noteworthy, although Barry as antagonist and Hayes as protagonist are sure to get the most attention.
Lighting design by Joshua Courtney is excellent and the sound designs and music by Brendan Connelly add tension and beauty to the scenes. Costumes by Kaci Thomasssie are also effective in this production.
However, David Raphel’s scenic design is magnificent above all the other technical work in depicting the Weston home and its many levels. The play required three levels in a tall performing space and Raphel fills it creatively and effectively.
So, if it took Southern Rep a boot from its former venue, a more than six-year journey looking for a proper performance space and a protracted capital campaign in order to make their presentation of August: Osage County a reality, it is all worth the wait for the New Orleans theatre loving community. (Understandably, they may not have appreciated this analysis.) Even with its three-hour and 30 minutes long running time (and two intermissions), this is a show not to be missed.
Written by Tracy Letts and directed by Jason Kirkpatrick, August: Osage County continues its run at Southern Rep, 2541 Bayou Road, through October 6. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays with matinees on Sunday at 3:00 p.m. Tickets are available here or by calling 504-522-6545.