Theater review: ‘August: Osage County,” at Theatre Downtown

By Elizabeth Maupin
Elizabeth Maupin on Theater

Pete Penuel, Leslie Penuel and Cira Larkin in 'August: Osage County' at Theatre Downtown

There’s something rotten in the state of Oklahoma – at least if you’re judging from the Westons, the hard-drinking, pill-popping, highly profane and wildly dysfunctional family at the center of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County.

But maybe it’s not just Oklahoma. Maybe there’s something particularly American in the wild mess the Westons have made of their lives – and in the sardonic wit that Letts, who won the Pulitzer Prize for August: Osage County in 2008, unleashes on this all-too-deserving clan.

Some of that comedy is missing from Theatre Downtown’s regional premiere of August: Osage County, a production that still gets at the dark forces that eat at the Westons and have turned their convoluted family relations into a modern-day version of Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

Credit director Frank Hilgenberg for a staging that takes its time with the Westons – not only with their high drama (and there’s plenty of that) but also with the quieter moments that demonstrate the utter normalcy of this wayward family. Watch, for example, as Leslie Penuel’s Barbara, the ablest of the family’s three middle-aged daughters, sets aside her defenses to renew an acquaintance with an old beau.

Pete Penuel as Bill Fordham and Leslie Penuel as Barbara Fordham in 'August: Osage County.'

Penuel’s is only one of this production’s several terrific performances, which also include her husband Pete Penuel as Bill Fordham, Barbara’s quietly straying spouse; Tim Bass as Charlie Aiken, her slow-moving, good-natured uncle; and Cira Larkin as Violet Weston, the family matriarch, a bantam rooster of a woman with a diabolical glint in her eye.

Fran Hilgenberg designed the family’s rambling country house, the longtime retreat of Violet’s husband Beverly (Pat Kelly), an acclaimed poet and professor whose heyday was 40 years in the past. The set doesn’t have the vertiginous height of the Broadway version, which looked to be every bit as tall and imposing as a real three-story house. But Fran Hilgenberg and her crew have captured the family’s rise to gracious living, as well as the disarray into which they’ve fallen as time has worn them down.

It’s August and hot inside the Weston homestead, where Beverly doesn’t believe in air-conditioning and he and Violet have sealed up all the windows to insure a perpetual night. All the better, it seems, for Beverly to drink himself into a garrulous dissipation and for Violet, who’s afflicted with throat cancer, to gobble up downers by the fistful.

When Beverly hires a housekeeper and then disappears, on comes the rest of the family – the Fordhams and their disaffected 14-year-old daughter Jean (Sarah Andrew); the wandering Karen Weston (Marcie Schwalm) and her over-hearty fiancé Steve (Dean Walkuski); the glum Ivy Weston (Monica Travers), a daughter who has stuck close to home; and a trio of in-laws: Violet’s larger-than-life sister Mattie Fae (Katrina Tharin), her genial husband Charlie and their hapless 37-year-old son (Michael Ealy), whom nearly everyone still calls Little Charles.

The stage is set for accusations, for recriminations and for just about every single male-female relationship to be proven a sham. And the stage is set for what Violet calls “truth-telling” – honesty shaped mostly by meanness, which Violet unleashes on every member of her family and which most of them adopt and bend to their own needs.

That kind of truth-telling can be wildly funny, although Letts’ wild-eyed sense of humor (he also wrote the ferociously funny Killer Joe) seems tamed in this production, and some of the actors miss much of the humor in their roles. Kelly, who is new to Theatre Downtown, makes his Beverly sound altogether too plummy and old-South, and his first-scene monologue – written as cocksure and pretentious – doesn’t hit the notes it should. Travers’ Ivy comes across as more beaten-down than rebellious, and Schwalm’s sweet-tempered Karen captures only a little of the flakiness that led her to stray so far.

A few others aren’t given enough to do: Natalie Reed is likable as Johnna Monevata, the Westons’ Native American housekeeper, but it seems as if director Hilgenberg isn’t sure what to make of this role. And Anthony W. Vito finds a nice gentleness in Sheriff Deon Gilbeau, but he’s not onstage enough to do more.

But there is plenty of finely etched acting here – from Tharin as Mattie Fae, who picks at her son like an old scab, and from Andrew, who looks like a young Molly Ringwald, as the sulky, hypersexual Jean. Walkuski makes Steve a creep who wants to make the most of every opportunity, and Ealy is just right as the craven Little Charles.

Bass’s well-meaning, shambling Charlie comes off as almost the only likable human being in sight: He’s a stitch as he tries to make the best of a sojourn among the mean-spirited Westons. Pete Penuel finds a kind of nobility in Bill, a flawed man who is also trying to make the best of a bad situation.

And both Leslie Penuel and Larkin are superb – Larkin, although young for her role, as a canny woman who makes comedy out of her very hatefulness (just watch her shake her vials of pills in the faces of her horrified family), and Penuel as a woman who is both strong and terribly sad, a woman whose drawn face hides her fear that she is turning into her own mother.

Penuel has a lovely way with some of the play’s quietest moments. Early on, her character says the Oklahoma plains are “a state of mind – like the blues.” Much later she follows up, languidly but with a trace of self-mockery: “I’ve just got the plains,” she says.

Everybody’s got some version of the plains, but playwright Letts is undoubtedly after something more than a jab at his native state. Oklahoma is, after all, also Oklahoma!: There’s something quintessentially American about it, just as there is about Violet’s saying of herself and Beverly, “We lived too hard and we rose too high.”

And there’s something quintessentially tragic in a family that never seemed to find its balance, a family whose members each seem to have retreated into a private, self-interested form of hell. Maybe Osage County is only one kind of America. But its baroque failures are worth taking a closer look.

‘August: Osage County’

  • What: Theatre Downtown production of Tracy Letts drama.
  • Where: Theatre Downtown, 2113 N. Orange Ave., Orlando.
  • When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, through March 27; also, 2 p.m. March 20 and 27.
  • Running time: Three hours and 20 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission and one five-minute break.
  • Cost: $20 general, $16 seniors and students.
  • Call: 407-841-00383.

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