Family life toxic, funny in 'August'
Jeanenne Abney describes the bitingly funny August: Osage County in simple but mysterious terms.
“The show is one long ‘reveal,’” said Abney, who plays the role of drugged-up matriarch Violet in the play.
Interesting choice of words. On cable television’s HGTV, “reveal” is code for the tantalizing moment when homeowners see the magic of contractors and interior designers on a dated or broken down house or condo. The lucky homeowners greet the fresh paint, new furniture and hip chotzkies with shrieks of happiness and even tears of joy.
The “reveal” in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play is prolonged, but the Westons, Fordhams and Aikens don’t greet the revelations with joy. If anything, the laughs — and playwright Tracy Letts script delivers a goodly share of real belly laughs — are antidotes to the progression of upheavals and horrors. (Audiences should brace themselves. The play begins with a crushing blow and then racks up insult on top of injury until the play’s final scenes.)
Abney joins an A-list of local actors — John Evarts, Connie Lane, Dena Dunn and Fred Cassell — in the story about the sudden disappearance of the Weston family’s patriarch, Beverly (Cassell). Under the competent hand of award-winning director Mildred A. Peveto, the ensemble weaves a tangled web of deferred dreams, deliberate deceptions and terminally broken relationships. The Westons are shot through with addictions and secrets. They’re abetted by extended family in the Aikens, a sad trio so burdened with gleeful spite, unspoken recrimination and anger that to hear them is to cringe your way through the emotional battery by Mattie Fae (Michelle Rose), the desensitized resignation of Charles and the nebbish anxiety of their son, “Little” Charles.
“This is the Thanksgiving dinner you dream about, but don’t have,” Abney said.
When the Westons, Fordhams and Aikens gather to muddle through their alcoholic patriarch’s disappearance, agendas clash. The Weston children fight for their rightful positions. Eldest daughter Barbara immediately commandeers the situation, but finds being in charge a complicated mish-mash of sibling rivalry and unwanted duty. Barbara already has the demise of her own marriage to deal with, and the fallout for her 14-year-old daughter. Mattie Fae snipes from the sidelines, as happy to wound her own clan as she is her sister’s fraying brood. And no one knows what to do with Johnna, a Cheyenne nursing student hired to see Violet through her pill-popping fog.
“Yeah,” said actor Jordan Love. “This is the Thanksgiving where everybody says exactly what they think, and they don’t care who gets offended.”
John Evarts said the play makes use of the Greek tragedy — a house divided against itself — which makes the characters worthy of empathy, even if they are cruel.
“There are no scabs in this family,” Evarts said. “In this family, we scratch each other’s scabs off. It’s almost Greek melodrama. There are aspects of this family that the only way to deal with them is to run away.”
The family bustles about on the tallest set the community theater has ever built. The three-story house is a metaphor. Its August in Oklahoma, and Violet refuses to run the air conditioner. Secrets are swapped in the attic and on the porch. The fights erupt at the dining table and in the family room. And everything we can find out about the absent Beverly Weston is hidden in his office.
What keeps August from being an emotional gore-fest are the unexpected moments of tenderness and craving for connection. Hope springs eternal in Violet, Barbara, Ivy and “Little” Charles. The light moments are few and far between, but they are buoyant enough to keep the audience along for a very bumpy ride.
“In a way, I’m surprised that Denton Community Theatre is doing this show,” said actress Connie Lane. “This is a risky show, and a lot of things happen in this play that are going to make a lot of people uncomfortable. But I’m glad they’re doing it. Glad to be a part of it.”
When asked how the cast manages the scathing script, Abney didn’t hesitate.
“There’s a lot of trust off stage, which makes what we have to do a lot easier,” she said. “And there’s a lot of hugging after. I’m serious. A lot of hugging.”
— Lucinda Breeding
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY
What: a comic tragedy by Tracy Letts staged by Denton Community Theatre
When: 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and Sept. 26-27, 2 p.m. on Sunday and on Sept. 28
Where: The Campus Theatre, 214 W. Hickory St.
How much: Rated R for adult themes and language. Tickets cost $20 for adults, $18 for ages 62 and older and $10 for students with a valid ID. For reservations, call 940-382-1915 from 1 to 5 p.m. on weekdays.
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY CAST
Beverly Weston – Fred Cassel
Violet Weston – Jeannene Abney
Barbara Weston Fordham – Dena Dunn
Ivy Weston – Connie Lane
Karen Weston – Betsy Jilka
Bill Fordham – John Evarts
Jean Fordham – Amanda Levell
Steve Heidebrecht – Sean Holmes
Mattie Fae Aiken – Michelle Rose
Charlie Aiken -- Dave Harper
“Little” Charles Aiken – Jordan Love
Johnna Monteva – Alison Trapp
Sheriff Deon Gilbeau – Steve Hindman