Review: 'August: Osage County'
at the Pear
Some pieces of art—whether theatrical, musical or cinematic—are best experienced at a particular time of day, or during a specific season, in order to help the audience suspend their disbelief.
The color films of Nicholas Ray are meant for red sundowns, Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" for midnight road trips, and Tracy Letts' August: Osage County is for the pearled sweat of summer. How appropriate, then, for the Pear Theatre to be staging August: Osage County when temperatures are exceeding 90 degrees in the South Bay.
The play begins with the disappearance of Beverly (Bill C. Johnson), who vanishes after quoting T.S. Eliot's The Hollow Men, leaving his pill-popping wife, Violet (Diane Tasca), to fend for herself. She's not alone for long. Soon after her husband goes missing, Violet's children return to their sweltering childhood home—which remains un-air conditioned on Violet's strict orders—to console, then argue with their increasingly unhinged mother.
The heat permeating the Oklahoma house where August: Osage County is set, is not simply a result of the local climate. Rather, it would seem that the rising temperature is fueled by the anger that has long been fermenting among the play's characters, who now find themselves living under the same roof for the first time in years.
Winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award in 2008, August is a Southern family drama in the Tennessee Williams tradition. It is a heady play, featuring a potent mix of resentment, desperation and black humor. Watching these characters interact with one another conjures conflicting emotions in the viewer. They're a royally screwed up family—which is also to say they are a family.
There are instances where The Pear's actors strain to hit what are supposed to be spontaneous, explosive bursts of emotion—mostly rage. Still, this is an exceptionally well-cast and performed production.
Diane Tasca has an especially difficult role as Violet. It would be easy to hate the character by the end of the play, if not for Tasca's nimble portrayal, which infuses Violet's cruelty, ego and drugged-fueled-sloppiness with undeniable charm and a shattering vulnerability.
The entire production takes place inside the house, which director (and Metro writer) Jeanie K. Smith stages in an interesting way—as if the first floor were one long railroad apartment. This means that anyone sitting too far to one side or the other will spend the three-hour production shifting about to catch the action at the opposite end of the stage.
However, this long, wide set also allows for a wonderful kind of simultaneity. My seat was the last one on the right side of the theater, making it easiest for me to observe what was happening in front of me on stage left. This is perhaps why I caught sight of Johnna (one of the play's minor characters) arranging papers in Beverly's study.
She was shrouded in darkness, while the action took place on the other side of the stage, in the dining room. The only people who could have seen what Johnna was doing were those sitting to the very right. That urgent drama can exist in the same time and space as the unnoticed gestures of someone going about their work—someone who stands outside the family squabble—with an interior reality all their own, is a poetic gesture to the essential "nowness" of existence, whether that existence takes place under a spotlight or in the shadows.
August: Osage County
Thru Jul 10, Various Times, $25-$30
Pear Theatre, Mountain View