The truth is, no one can resist gawking at a disaster, the bloodier the better. We just can’t look away.
This may be one of the reasons audiences are fascinated by the incredibly dysfunctional interactions of the Westons of Pawhuska, Okla., the extended family in Tracy Letts’ Tony Award/Pulitzer Prize-winning play “August: Osage County” which opened Friday evening in South Bend Civic Theatre’s Wilson Mainstage Auditorium.
As the 31/2 hour drama (or comedy, could not decide which was more prevalent) unfolds, I kept hoping that the next character to enter set designer David Chudzynski’s amazing two-story house (plus front porch and attic) would have a least one redeeming quality.
No such luck.
The fairly mild atmosphere of the prologue during which Weston patriarch Beverly (Paul Hanft) interviews prospective live-in cook/caregiver Johnna Monevata (Lisa Blodgett), disappears quickly as the poet/professor lists his wife’s prescription drugs of choice — “Valium, Vicadin, Darvon, Darvocet, Percodan, Percocet, Xanax for fun, Oxycontin in a pinch, Black Mollies and Dilaudid.”
“She takes pills,” he says, explaining their “marital contract,” “and I drink.”
That’s putting it mildly.
Immediately after that, Beverly disappears, an act which leads to the family gathering and results, after the official report of his drowning, in a wake to end all wakes.
Gathering around mother Violet (Mary Toll) are daughters Barbara (Lucinda Moriarty), Ivy (Julie Hoven) and Karen (Seyhan Kilic); Barbara’s husband Bill Fordham (Mark Moriarty) and their daughter Jean, 14 (Stacie Jensen); Karen’s fiancé Steve Heidebrecht (Scot Shepley); Violet’s sister Mattie Fae Aiken (Leigh Taylor) and her husband Charlie (Douglas Streich) and son Little Charles (Scott Jackson). Sheriff Don Gilbeau (Brian Kozlowski), a former beau of Barbara’s, delivers the fatal news.
Each of the individuals, married or single and hoping, is battling his/her own set of demons but no one delivers lethal barbs with such intentionally destructive accuracy as the deliberately evil Violet. She targets everyone. No one escapes. She delights in taking out her own misery on everyone around her. Even the lack of air-conditioning is explained by Beverly who tells Johnna “My wife is cold-blooded and not just in the metaphorical sense.”
The comparison to a deadly reptile is well taken.
Alcoholism, drug addiction, adultery and sexual deviation are all just below the surface. As Violet continues to pick away at hidden secrets, all eventually come to light, and no one takes greater delight in revealing them than the lethal mater familias!
It is difficult to believe that anyone would submit to Violet’s poisonous diatribes but it is more than difficult to look away as, one by one, she destroys every chance of relationships with — and for — her daughters and, eventually, for herself. At the last, no one in the audience has a shred of sympathy.
As noted earlier, Chudzinski has put the high and wide proscenium to excellent use. Aided by Kevin Dreyer’s lighting design, it provides the perfect background for the many moods that emerge amid the stifling heat of Oklahoma in August.
Outstanding in director Aaron Nichols excellent cast are Taylor as the domineering Mattie Fae, Streich as her peace-at-(almost)all-costs husband, Jackson as their spineless son and Hoven as his too-close-for-comfort lover. They are uncomfortably believable as are the real-life-married Moriartys playing the secretly-separated Fordhams and Jensen as their 14-going-on-25 pot-smoking daughter. Shepley’s oily outsider is skin-crawling making Kilic’s refusal to accept his obvious reality understandably heartbreaking.
The source of all their neuroses is Violet. As played by Toll, she is always in “attack mode” and appallingly indifferent to the chaos she creates and the heartbreak she deliberately inflicts.
Looking back as the final darkness descends, one can only echo Barbara’s statement to Jean: “Thank God we can’t tell the future. We’d never get out of bed.”
“AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY” plays at 7:30 p.m. today through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the theater at 403 N. Main Street, South Bend. For reservations, call 234-1112 or visit www.sbct.org.