at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
August: Osage County
by Tracy Letts
We saw the evening performance of August: Osage County the same day as the matinée of Ghost Light. With apologizes to the Pulitzer jury and to our many friends who felt that August had the best of all possible characterizations and story, in my opinion August is just too contrived and suffers in comparison to the realness of Ghost Light.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival August production is excellent, and none of my reservations come from the Ashland concepts, designs, or acting. Director Christopher Liam Moore worked a quality, cohesive structure where the crafts and on-stage talent give us a perfectly blended, unified vision.
The big, sprawling-but-detailed set moves the open plains into the Bowmer Theater. Neil Patel’s design is a great hodgepodge of vignette holding spaces, mixed up like the family we’re watching.
Costume designer Alex Jaeger gives just the right clothing to each person. There is (mostly) subtle differences in what’s being worn, and the choices reflect the wearer’s personality without drawing unreasonable attention to the clothes.
The acting is a magnificent tour de force of depth and strength. All of the actors have the same understanding of the family and of the play. They work together to expose each character to the audience.
Judith Marie Bergan (Violet) is spectacularly selfish, hurt, sick, harsh, and funny. In most venues she would have walked away with the show and you wouldn’t remember who else was on stage with her. She was natural in her twisted addictions, sometimes even humorous but never too slapstick-y.
Richard Elmore (Beverly) sets the high standard for the acting with his prologue. I love his low-key delivery that lets him slip off the stage without you fully comprehending how he’s set up the rest of the play.
Terri McMahon (Ivy Weston) and Kate Mulligan (Karen Weston) are terrific as sisters, and Catherine E. Coulson (Mattie Fay Allen) puts power into a relatively ditz-prone woman of a certain age. I have only applause for the other actors, too.
What I cannot applaud is the contrived storyline that sounds like an outline for the most convoluted soap opera ever. Don’t believe me? Check out the plot in Wikipedia.
This play is beyond conscientious in making sure that it handles every family complication possible (although they only make a lesbian accusation and don’t really have a sexual minority to prey on). The plot serves a ratatouille of domestic misfortune and intrigue. I think it’s so uncomfortably over-spiced that it tastes phony. The narrative isn’t in the tradition of great theater tragedies, it’s from the reject pile for Desperate Housewives.
The author’s attempt at manipulation as he stuffs suicide, drug addition, sibling discord, infidelity, failing health, failing marriages, etc. ad nauseum into one steaming lump of drama leaves me emotionally untouched. He’s written a serviceable vehicle for brilliant acting vignettes, but a Pulitzer?
There are meaty monolog-ish scenes which will serve generations of aspiring actors as audition material. Ashland’s talented team avoids crewing scenery, histrionics, and anything vaguely cringe-inducing. The audience can see themselves or someone in their family here and there. But, really. Enough. As a whole, the plot is impossible to accept and distanced me from the performances.
In addition, there were holes in my understanding of the story. There’s a pouch around the neck that one character talks about early on, but nothing comes of it that I could tell. And, the Importance (capital I) of that character mystifies me still. Other friends noted other loose ends, and overall I felt the play still needs editing.
But, we’re still watching Our Town with its simplified corny charm, and the nasty mess of August could become the classic reference of a family in the 2010’s. Who knows? For me, though, all the stars are for the actors and crafts that presented August in Ashland.
As I mentioned in a different forum, this play is a play written by an actor for other actors. Lots of meaty roles and high emotions, but no real plot.
A drama should tell me something universal about the human condition. I don’t really care about this playwright’s massively dysfunctinal family.
We hadn’t listened to the OSF podcast about the play until our drive home. Chris Moore, the director, talks in it about how the play was written as a performance vehicle for the actors in the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago.
I didn’t know the play was actually written with that goal when I wrote my comments. But, I think my review is clear that the play sure felt like it was designed with actors in mind!
I guess I like Moore better as an actor than as a director.
I like Chris just fine as a director. I thought he constructed a unified performance that did the play justice. More than justice. For me, the flaws were all in the script.