Posted by: strugglesome | October 19, 2011

All In the Family: The Arden Theatre’s August Osage County

There seems to be an obsession in these United States with the creation of the “great American (fill in the blank)”. Everyone and their mother is currently writing “the great American novel”, working on “the great American screenplay” and icing the “great American cupcake” (well, that’s honestly what I’m assuming Cupcake Wars is about. Please don’t tell me otherwise, I don’t want to hear it). And they way people talk about “great American stories” always seems to beg the article “the”, as in, there can only be one. Which, if you think about the very principles upon which this immigrant nation was founded, seems ludicrous. How could there every be one novel, one art piece, one baked good, that speaks to each and everyone one of us? We are all from different places, and our understanding of this country depends entirely on our own perspective. As the product of fairly recent immigrants, I can attest to this.  I personally have spent more time in Spain then I have in South Carolina, and I know more about Soviet policy then I do about the nature of Wyoming. We have all our own concept of this country, and we can’t expect any one piece of art to encompass this entire nation.

So when we look at a play like Tracy Lett’s August Osage County, now being presented by the Arden Theatre Company,  and we hear this Pulitzer Prize winning work discussed as a “Great American Play”, what does that actually mean? Well, it is, of course, a play with American characters. The Morgan family, the subject of this play, are long time Oklahoma residents, or at least, they were.  As Tolstoy wrote, “Happy families are all alike, but unhappy families are all different”.  Well, this is a severely unhappy family, and boy, are they different. Beverly and Violet Weston (David Howey and Carla Belver, respectively) are quite the power couple. He is a washed-out poet turned verbose drunk while she is a cancer patient with a pill-box the size of Montana. They have an agreement, you see, she partakes in large quantities of prescription medication, he drinks whiskey, and everyone pretends it’s normal. As the lights rise on the Weston household we hear Beverly explaining this lovely little arrangement to his new housekeeper, Johnna (Elena Araoz), and, having delivered the information and given us a brief window into his booze-soaked poetic soul, he disappears, never to be seen again. And that becomes the impetus for the rest of the show, as Violet summons her scattered brood home. Her husband’s little disappearing act is the perfect excuse to force her three grown daughters to comfort her. Never mind that Barbara (Grace Gonglewski) is facing martial issues with husband Bill (Eric Hissom). Never mind that Ivy (Corinna Burns) is playing kissing cousins with Little Charles (Charlie DelMarcelle). And never mind that Karen (Kathryn Petersen) is planning on getting married to her creepy boyfriend Bill (Anthony Lawton). The bell tolls for them.

And so the three sisters descend upon their childhood home, only to find it a broken-down mausoleum, the monument to a fractured family blackened with age, neglect and decay. At least, that’s what happens in theory. But while Lett’s script describes a dark, stuffy, mercilessly hot (Violet “doesn’t believe in air conditioning”) claustrophobic nightmare of a mansion, what the Arden has given us is an open and airy scaffold of a house (set design by Dan Conway), warm and glowing in the beams of Thom Weaver’s lighting plot. Everyone looks neat and attractive, well-tailored but comfortable, thanks to Alison Robert’s simple costume design. In short, it’s not a space one would walk into and say, what the hell happened to these people, it’s nice, it’s clean, it’s homey. And that’s a bit of a problem. Because one of the things the play sets up so well is the oppressive nature of the space. The house has come to mimic Violet and Beverly’s relationship, their dysfunction, it’s shut off from the rest of the world, all the blinds drawn and windows shut. It’s stale and abandoned, at least, at the start of the play. But the house director Terrance Nolen’s production gives us never changes, never shifts, never improves or worsens. It’s perfectly nice, and all, but totally inappropriate for a play about a family in crisis converging during a hot summer in Oklahoma.

But what’s in a setting, you might ask? Well, quite a bit, as it turns out.  Without engaging in an hours-long discussion about the effects of nature versus nurture on human development, let’s just skip straight to the point where we all acknowledge that environment has a strong effect on people. Or, in this case, plays. And so while the text itself is a gritty, dirty, shocking and outrageously funny punch to the gut, this particular production is clean, neat, and downright pleasant. In this respect it neuters Lett’s vicious text, and it sterilizes its cast of wonderful actors by restricting them from exploring the boundaries and extremes within the story. Belver’s Violet scarfs down pills and spits out curse words but without any of the bile or true nastiness we need to understand how this family works. Or the toll it’s taking on her children. And as a result, Araoz’s weakly delivered Johnna, who should serve as witness, outsider, friend of the audience, just feels unnecessary, when she should be the audience’s avenue of entry, the person with whom we can be continually checking in and confirming, this is messed up, right?

Burns’ Ivy simmers silently with the resentment of the only child still living near her parents, Peterson’s Karen deflects everything with delicious self-involvement,  while Gonglewski’s Barbara beautifully portrays a woman just trying to keep it together in the face of her parent’s self-destruction, her husband’s infidelity and her child’s (Dylan Gelula) precocious problems, but it’s hard to really feel how difficult this is for any of them when the stakes of the play are so muted.  Rhythmically the show works like a cannon when it ought to be a rock song, despite James Sugg’s solid sound work. As a result, the most famous, or infamous, climaxes of the piece, just happen, rather than actually being earned.

That’s not to say there aren’t excellent performance here, but they all have to fight their way through their squeaky clean  presentation that lays a heavy hand on all the “meaningful” lines and ignores most of the rest. Mary Martello’s Mattie Fae (Violet’s sister, Little Charles’ mother, it’s a good thing they include a family tree in the program) is a strata, she’s so layered, snapping and sassy to cover devastating secrets and strength, and it’s all there, all the time. Her husband, Charlie (Paul Nolan) matches her well, making them the only couple in play that we actually hope will succeed in moving past the past. Gonglewski, Burns and Peterson work together like sisters, silently communicating and condemning each other, wallowing in their memories and baffled by their manipulative mother. Gelula’s Juno-like frankness and physical awkwardness have as their foil the disturbingly believable flirtations of Lawton’s Florida-based Humbert Humbert. And Belver’s Carla, when she has the chance to really get messy, really does breathe the fire of 40 years of hatred, pain and regret.

And we can’t say it’s not a moving story, one that grips the audience long after they’ve left. It’s an excellent play. We’d be moved by a reading of this text, let alone a full production. It’s a play that contributes to Philadelphia in its production, a play that ought to be produced here. No one could possibly argue with the choice. It would just be nice if the execution lived up to the strength of the story.

The Arden Theatre’s production of August Osage County runs until October 30th, and at the very least, it’s worth seeing this stunning play which is already venerated as a classic, despite it’s youth. You can pick up tickets here.

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