WOW! Playhouse Opening Exceeds All Expectations

Susie as Violet, Supporting Cast Triumph

I couldn’t bear to leave the Omaha Community Playhouse after seeing August: Osage County. I was eager as a giddy school girl to celebrate the brilliance of an epic script and performances so powerful I grieved for those who didn’t find a place in director Amy Lane’s “dream team” cast.

Never have I expected so much from an award-winning drama and yet found it exceeding the highest expectations. It has been decades since I could only inarticulately mutter “Wow!” over and over at the end of three hours with that incredibly screwed-up Weston family.

No regrets for driving nearly 600 miles to see it. A little regret for the fact that Bill Hutson’s Beverly disappears after a memorable opening scene, and more regret that I know intelligent people who will be unable to enjoy this Playhouse triumph.

They’ll skip it because they can’t tolerate the torrent of four-letter words and vicious confrontations. Words uttered both in explosive anger and drunken banter by this monumentally dysfunctional family make George and Martha of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf sound like indecisive milquetoasts.

Sorry, but I wouldn’t censor a word, even when Moira Mangiameli, as the daughter who declares, “I’m running things now,” rages with a carpet-bombing arsenal of Anglo-Saxon f words.

Give playwright Tracy Letts credit. He won both Tony and Pulitzer awards by delivering a script that fills three hours with peak after peak of hilarious and troubling scenes that never falter.

Damned if you don’t actually care a great deal about the Weston family even at their worst. And if you didn’t like learning that Susan Baer Collins plans to stop directing for the Playhouse in two years, you could pray that she’d tackle more roles like that of the drug-addled but wily Violet Weston. It’s the role of a lifetime and she’s absolutely a lock for season honors, as is the play and others in the cast.

Violet is a mess, but an outrageously entertaining mess who turns the Act Two dinner party following her husband’s funeral into a scathing orgy of truth-telling revelations.

No one is spared, especially Moira’s Barbara, the daughter who bears the brunt of Violet’s guilt-dumping. Barbara later exclaims, in a line that lurks in the minds of the audience throughout, “You people amaze me.”

Thanks to director Lane, playwright Letts and this marvelous cast, even mundane lines make timely impact. Rachel Kirwan, as the woman hired by Hutson’s Bev Weston (“a world-class alcoholic for 50 years”) before he disappears, scores with the simple “Dinner is ready,” thanks to its flat starkness in a sea of garrulous craziness.

Kirwan, as a dignified Cheyenne Indian determined to keep her job while all hell breaks loose around her, contrasts beautifully with the combustive Westons, and shares a poignant final scene with Violet.

But I’ve never felt a greater obligation to give appropriate attention to a dozen characters. Most performed in the earlier staged reading of August: Osage County and it’s easy to see why Lane didn’t replace them for the full staging in the Howard Drew Theatre.

All takes place in the Oklahoma home of the Westons, another artful Jim Othuse scenic design with the audience on three sides, so close to the action that we might have been tempted to intervene when things got out of hand. Which they did.

We might have tried to rescue Olivia Sather, a baby-faced collegian completely convincing as Barbara’s 14-year-old pot-smoking daughter Jean. But when Rob Baker’s sleazy Steve assaults her, Johnna, “the Indian living in the attic,” spares us by brandishing a frying pan.

Suffice it to say, Sather and Baker excel vividly in their roles, just as Jim McKain and RandyVest do with strength as relatively low-key spouses. Kim Jubenville, as Violet’s sister, and Laura Leininger, as the most desperate and deluded of her three daughters, conquer the challenges of roles that require unsympathetic weaknesses.

Two sympathetic performers you’re most likely to root for are Erika Hall as Ivy Weston and Colton Neidhardt as “Little Charles,” son of the couple played by Jubenville and Vest. Mainly you’ll root for them to escape this madhouse but, meanwhile, it’s easier to hope they’ll escape the verbal abuse of their sharp-tongued elders.

Playwright Letts, however, never fails to reveal good reasons for what first seems inexplicably unacceptable behavior.

When all is said and done, you’re left after three acts and 10 superb scenes with countless shocks, laughs, revelations and immense gratitude that the Playhouse made the bold decision to stage this masterpiece.

And, believe me, time does fly when you’re having this much fun in the face of a divine tragedy.

August: Osage County runs Aug. 17-Sept. 16 in the Howard Drew Theatre of the Omaha Community Playhouse, 6915 Cass St., 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $35 adults, $21 students. Call 402.553.0800 or visit omahaplayhouse.com.

posted at 07:22 pm
on Sunday, August 19th, 2012

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