Tracy Letts’s AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY…A Modern Great at the Arden

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY bookends with characters quoting T. S. Elliot’s “The Hollow Men.” “Life is very long,” begins Beverly Weston (David Howey), the alcoholic patriarch of an Oklahoma household, talking to the young American Indian woman (Elena Aroaz) he’s hired to take care of the family home and its drug-addicted matriarch, his wife Violet (Carla Belver). “Absolutely goddamn right,” he agrees.

This bleak outlook and wry humor run throughout Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer- and Tony-winning drama, now in a superb production at Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre. A family crisis brings the extended Weston clan back to the homestead (an elaborate three-floored house frame set, elegantly designed by Dan Conway and sublimely lit by Thom Weaver) from towns near and far. With dialogue biting in its humor and profundity, the family members’ dysfunctions and disconnections are laid bare.

Every family has its secrets, but few could compete with the Westons for a catalogue of social defects: addiction, infidelity, incest, and everyday cruelty, to name but a few. Each generation is uniquely messed up, from the pot-smoking 14-year-old granddaughter (played convincingly yet with precocious maturity by Dylan Gelula) to the alternatively incoherent and bitchy Violet (Belver is commanding and consistently in character through every swing).

The all-star cast of (mostly) Philadelphia-based actors shines under the guidance of the company’s artistic director Terrence J. Nolen. The multivalent dynamics of the thirteen characters demand many unique interactions, and although not every one comes off smoothly under his direction, some light up the stage exquisitely.

Best of all is the interplay between Gonglewski as the prodigal daughter and Eric Hissom as her husband, in a dead-eyed portrayal of a Boulder, Colorado, Liberal Arts academic. Cast together as a couple for the fourth time, the pair build upon the incredible chemistry they mustered in the Arden’s 2010/11 production of Eugune O’Neill’s A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN. Indeed, it’s a testament to the strength of Lett’s writing that their dialogue here feels as charged and true as O’Neill’s and their relationship could be lifted out of an Edward Albee script.

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY invites comparison to Albee’s WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, to O’Neill’s LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, to Arthur Miller’s DEATH OF A SALESMAN; Letts is reaching to the pantheon. He probably falls short—the family’s shopping list of dysfunctions wanders into dramatic contrivance; the use of a stoic Native American as a “noble Indian” who stomached loss and suffering with equanimity only to see her new masters tear themselves apart feels heavy-handed; the nods to Great American Plays past are perhaps derivative; the allegories are ambiguous instead of revelatory. But quibbles and unfair comparisons aside, there’s no doubt about it: this is a brilliantly entertaining play excellently staged.

The ambitiously large ensemble of characters are fully formed. Refreshingly for a male-written play, the strongest among them are the women. The men are absent, unfaithful, flawed, and weak. But even inner strength does not translate to nobility or mask deep flaws, Letts insists. “This is the way the world ends,” the penultimate lines of “The Hollow Men” echo as the lights fade.

“Not with a bang but a whimper,” is Elliot’s unquoted conclusion.

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY
By Tracy Letts
Directed by Terrence L. Nolen
September 29 – October 30
Arden Theatre Company
40 N. Second St.
Philadelphia, PA
215-922-1122
ardentheatre.org

Published by Stage Magazine.

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About the author

Christopher Munden

Your faithful correspondent and publisher Christopher Munden has written and edited for many publications, websites, and cultural institutions. He was an editor/publisher of the Philly Fiction book series, collections of short stories written by local writers and set in Philadelphia. He's also a soccer coach and a pretty good skier.