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Wendy R. Williams'
March 2008 Theatre Column

March 5, 2008

Tracy Letts' August Osage County

I saw only one play last month, The Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of Tracy Letts' August Osage County. August was written by Tracy Letts (off Bug and Killer Joe fame) and directed by Anna D. Shapiro. August stars: Ian Barford as Little Charles Aiken (Cousin); Deanna Dunagan as Violet Weston; Kimberly Guerrero as Johnna Monevata (Housekeeper); Francis Guinan as Charlie Aiken (Uncle); Brian Kerwin as Steve Heidebrecht (Karen’s Fiancé); Dennis Letts as Beverly Weston; Madeline Martin as Jean Fordham (Granddaughter); Mariann Mayberry as Karen Weston (Youngest Daughter); Amy Morton as Barbara Fordham (Eldest Daughter); Sally Murphy as Ivy Weston (Middle Daughter); Jeff Perry as Bill Fordham (Barbara’s Husband); Rondi Reed as Mattie Fae Aiken (aunt).

I am a big fan of Tracy Letts. I reviewed Bug the play and Bug the movie. Both were excellent and were covered in my June 2007 Theater Column.

Bug was witty and eerie and had supernatural elements, so I was expecting something of the same genre with Lett’s new play. Well, I was certainly surprised. August Osage County may be set in heartland like Bug, but there the similarities end. August Osage County is one of the most brutally realistic plays I have ever seen. It is also one of the most brilliant.

August Osage County tells the story of the Weston family, a family headed by a paterfamilias, the (failed?) poet Beverly Weston. When the play opens we see Beverly, a talkative older man, interviewing a taciturn young American Indian woman, Johnna (played by Kimberly Guerrero) for the job of family housekeeper. He tells her that her main duty will be to care for his wife, Violet (played by Deanna Dugan), who has mouth cancer and needs to be driven to her doctor’s appointments. He also tells her that his wife does not believe in air conditioning (it is August in Oklahoma!!!) and that he and his wife have struck a bargain in life – he drinks and she takes pills.

In the next scene we find out that Beverly has disappeared and the extended family has been summoned to “help.” First to arrive is Violet’s sister, Mattie (the hysterically funny Rondi Reed). Mattie is talking to her husband Charlie (played by Francis Guinan) and she proceeds to give the audience some of the funniest exposition I have ever heard. She verbally dices and fillets all the expected family members and informs both Charlie and the audience just who is expected to arrive and when.

Already on the scene is the middle daughter Ivy (Sally Murphy). Ivy has never left town and is simply appalled that her father has left and now she will have to deal with her mother. But that is not all Ivy will have to deal with. Soon afterwards, the other two daughters, Barbara (played by Amy Morton) and Karen (played by Mariann Mayberry). And with the two daughters come additional baggage, Barbara’s husband Bill (played by Jeff Perry), Barbara’s precocious pot-smoking fourteen-year-old daughter Jean (played by Madeline Martin) and Jean’s new pedophile boyfriend, Steve (played by Brian Kerwin).

The program for August Osage County has a family tree of the Weston family, complete with photos of all the cast members (there are thirteen of them). But thirteen or not, it would take more than twelve additional cast members to handle Mamma Violet Weston.

When we first see Mamma Violet, she carefully creeps down the stairs of Todd Rosenthal’s excellent set. She actually appears harmless; an old woman suffering from cancer whose husband has gone missing. Well, when Beverly hired someone to “take care” of his wife, perhaps he should have considered hiring Britney’s body guards. Over the course of the next two and a half hours of the play (the play is over three hours long), Mamma proceeds to verbally destroy everyone who has come to “help” her. Anyone who has ever dreaded their own Thanksgiving dinner should see this play and its family dinner simply to get a little perspective.

The apple, however, has not fallen far from the tree and we quickly find out that Mamma’s oldest daughter, Barbara, would be perfectly capable of getting Hannibal’s elephants across the Alps, killing any and all who get in her way. And Barbara’s eerily precocious daughter Jean is no victim either. It may be hotter-than-hell and there may be pills, booze and a pedophile on-the-loose, but the Westons family produces warrior women. And Johnna, the housekeeper, delivers a few whacks too.

Tracy Letts wrote an astounding script for August Osage County. The characters in this play may have learned "to wit" before they learned to walk, but they are all rawly human. The play has been beautifully directed by Anna D. Shapiro. The show is also blessed with a fabulous set by Todd Rosenthal and an original music score by David Singer. But even with all of these advantages, the play could have easily floundered. It is over three hours long and has a cast of thirteen actors. If any one of these actors had not held their own, the show could have dragged. But every actor in this cast gave a wonderful performance and watching them duke it out on stage was a theatrical experience I hope to remember forever.

On a sad note, Michael McGuire has just taken over the role of Beverly Weston. The part had previously been played by Dennis Letts (Tracy Lett’s father), who died last week.

August will play its final performance at the Imperial on April 20, and re-open at the Music Box on April 29 and then reopen at the Music Box Theater on April 29, 2008.

Tickets are $26.50-$99.50 and can be ordered by phone at 212-239-6200 & 800-432-7250. Tickets can also be ordered online at telecharge.com.

The Imperial Theatre is located at 249 West 45th Street, New York, NY 10036. The Music Box Theater is located at 239 West 45th Street, New York, NY 10036

For more information, log onto augustonbroadway.com


February 11, 2008

Jim Norton, Sean Mahon, Conleth Hill, David Morse
and Cirian Hinds

The Seafarer
Photo Credit Joan Marcus

Last month I saw two plays plays: Conor McPherson's The Seafarer on Broadway and the Roundabout Theater Company’s off-Broadway production of Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart.

The Seafarer is playing on Broadway at the Booth Theatre through March 30, 2008. The Seafarer stars: Jim Norton (as Richard Harkin); David Morse (as Sharky); Conleth Hill (as Ivan Curry); Sean Mahon (as Nicky Giblin); and Cirian Hinds (as Mr. Lockhart).

Here is a quote from their press release: “Conor McPherson's The Seafarer is a chilling new play about the sea, Ireland, and the power of myth. It's Christmas Eve and Sharky has returned to Dublin to look after his irascible, aging brother who's recently gone blind. Old drinking buddies Ivan and Nicky are holed up at the house too, hoping to play some cards. But with the arrival of a stranger from the distant past, the stakes are raised ever higher. In fact, Sharky may be playing for his very soul.”

The play is set on Christmas Eve in an incredibly shabby home in Dublin. The house belongs to an old erudite drunk, Jim Norton, who was recently blinded by an unfortunate fall into a dumpster. This down turn in luck has necessitated that Jim’s ne’er-do-well younger brother Sharky come home to help out around the house.

Jim has a few friends who despite advancing age enjoy hanging at a house where there are no rules and a drunk can sleep off his whiskey wherever he happens to fall. One of those visitors, Ivan, is lying somewhere in the house as the play begins. And wherever Ivan happens to have been, his glasses were not and for most of the play, are not to be found. So we now have a house populated by two, for all practical purposes, blind drunks. And directing traffic is the hapless Sharky, who is trying desperately not to drink.

This motley group is soon joined by Sharky’s ex wife’s boyfriend, Nicky Giblin, who brings along a stranger he picked up in the pub, Mr. Lockhart. And everyone settles down for a long winter’s night of drink and wit and cards. Yes, cards. No one in the house lets blindness or drunkeness keep them from their love of cards. But it is night of drink and wit and cards which mask a terrifying dilemma. The devil himself has arrived and he wants his pound of flesh. But existential predicament or not, everyone is drunk, and no one seems quite capable of arising to the task of overcoming evil. But play they do, while the devil calmly awaits his due.

Wit is the engine that drives The Seafarer. Conor McPherson’s script is beautifully crafted; he is a playwright who was blessed with the gift from the Irish god of gab. And all of the actors have exquisite timing. Of special note are Jim Norton as Richard Harkin and Conleth Hill as Ivan Curry; they are undoubtedly two of the funniest actors alive.

The Seafarer is playing at the Booth Theatre at 222 West 45th Street. Tickets are $76.50-$96.50. By Phone - 212-239-6200 & 800-432-7250 telecharge.com. For more information, log onto: http://www.seafarertheplay.com/.

Crimes of the Heart
Photo Credit Joan Marcus

I also saw the Roundabout Theater’s production of Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart. Crimes is directed by Kathleen Turner and stars: Patch Darragh as Doc Porter; Jennifer Dundas as Lenny Magrath; Sarah Paulson as Meg Magrath; Lily Rabe as Babe Botrelle; Jessica Stone as Chick Boyle; and Chandler Williams as Barnette Lloyd. Paulson recently starred in Aaron Sorkin’s cancelled TV show, Studio 60, where she played the part of the goody-two-shoes Christian performer, Harriet Hayes who is in love with the cynical creator of Studio 60, Matt Albie (played by Matthew Perry). This story was oh-so-loosely based on the real life romance between Christian singer Kristin Chenoweth and Aaron Sorkin.

Crimes has always been one of my favorite Southern gothic plays. Some other reviewers have been a little put off by Henley's constant witty banter, but I am from the South and I know Southern women talk just like that, all the time and a lot.

Any theatrical production of Crimes will, justly or not, be compared to the excellent 1986 movie version of Crimes that starred Diane Keaton as Lenny, Jessica Lange as Meg and Sissy Spacek as Babe. Those three actresses really shot the ball out of the park and set an impossibly high standard for future productions.

I saw the Roundabout Theater's production while it was still in previews. The night I was there, the role of Babe was played by the understudy, Jessica Cummings. So, what did I think about this production? Well, I thought the set as incredible and that there were a quite a few talented actors in the cast, especially Jennifer Dundas as Lenny and Patch Darragh as Doc Porter. My only other comment is that the play seemed a little disjointed, like the production had not quite set. But that problem is probably explained by the presence of the understudy (who did an excellent job) on the stage and by the fact that getting a play to settle in, is exactly why there are previews.

Tickets are $63.75-$73.75. Order by phone at 212-719-1300 and online at http://www.roundabouttheatre.org/1207_splash.htm. Crimes plays at the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre at 111 West 46th Street, New York, NY 10036. The show closes on April 20, 2008.

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