Here's a suggestion to whichever local theater gets the rights for Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize- (and every other award)-winning play August: Osage County: Please sign on René Moreno to direct, and Pam Dougherty to play Violet, the pill-addicted matriarch of the all-kinds-of-messed-up Weston family. If you don't, well, then we'll worry for the show.
After witnessing those North Texans' involvement with one of the country's first regional productions of that play, at Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre—a fitting venue considering that the play's titular county is just a few counties northeast of OKC's Oklahoma County—in our minds, there are no other local choices.
There are probably a few directors around here who could give it a good go, but they might not find the nuances and unlock the staging tricks that Moreno discovered with his City Rep production. It was, on the whole, better than the Broadway tour that came to AT&T Performing Arts Center in January.
And that was a pretty solid tour, headed up by Estelle Parsons as Violet.
The City Rep production had only five performances (all sold out), from Oct. 7 to 10, at the Freede Little Theatre at the Civic Center Music Hall in downtown OKC. It's a large show, and expensive to run for extended weeks at an Equity house. (I made it up for the final matinee.) The production also featured North Texans Tristan Decker and Aaron Patrick Turner, doing lighting and costume design, respectively.
The OKC production had a massive set (by Ben Hall), but didn't opt for the three-story dollhouse that was used on Broadway and the national tour. In many ways, it served the play better, adding more realism to the twisted, soapy family dramas that happen in that dwelling. And surely Dougherty was glad that she didn't have to traipse up and down all those flights of stairs, like Parsons (who's quite a bit older than Dougherty) did on tour.
The cast, in most cases, was as good or eclipsed the performances seen at the Dallas leg of the tour. Most notable was Ruth Charnay as the dowdy, doomed-to-be-lonely Ivy, one of Violet's three daughters who return to the house after their father, Beverly, goes missing. (If you haven't seen it yet, I won't ruin that surprise, but it comes pretty early.) As the perkiest of the daughters, the idealistic Karen, Kris Schinske had the squeaky, annoying voice, but didn't take her portrayal into cartoon-land.
Craig Pruitt, as Little Charles, the put-upon, slacker cousin, exhibited spot-on timing and a commanding sense of the comically tragic. Sarah dAngelo was a solid Johnna, the caring-but-distant Native American housekeeper hired by Beverly in the first scene; and Jonathan Beck Reed had the elements of charm and creeps needed for the fiancé of Karen, Steve. There were also strong performances from D. Lance Marsh as Bill (the husband of the other daughter, Barbara), and Brooke Culbertson as the pot-smoking teenager Jean. As Mattie Fae and Charlie, the sister and brother-in-law of Violet, Cindy Hanska and Rick Allen Lippert had moments, but failed to turn it up in their final scene in the third act, when he tells her what he had wanted to say for many years.
Aside from Dougherty, the only non-OK resident in the cast was Broadway actress Stacey Logan, who grew up in OKC and has worked with OKCR before. She bears a resemblance to Julie White, and not just because both have done the show Bad Dates.
Logan had the heftiest sister role, as the daughter who has somewhat held her life together, but desperately fled from Osage County as soon as she could. She's not about to get stuck there again, taking care of the painkiller-addicted mother. Logan's portrayal of a woman who's hurting on the inside, but holds it together on the exterior, was powerfully moving.
Ultimately, the show is Violet's. She's all over this three-and-a-half hour soap operetta. Dougherty always amazes with her attention to character detail, and as Violet, she took that gift to a new level. Violet could be played as if painkillers had turned her into something similar to an Alzheimer's victim—a really mean one. Dougherty's Violet was less cloudy-of-mind than Parsons was. The drugs had her disoriented, but her contemptible nature was more deliberate, more focused, and that made her truly frightening. She also managed to squeeze some sympathy in there, as the character desperately tries to hold on to her family, even as she pushes them away.
August: Osage County is a play about family, even if it's a particularly dysfunctional one. So finding actors who can be physically believable as blood relations is important. That was achieved at City Rep. The relationships of the spouses, significant others and new acquaintances are explored, but it's especially invested in the three sisters and how they connect with one another, to their mother and their past.
And that's where City Rep excelled. Moreno delved into those relationships, and didn't put on the kid gloves. His production was visceral, dispensing with the superficiality that could easily envelope this show.
Moreno is a master at moving a cast about any given space—not to mention keeping them still. With this bear of a play, which at points calls for almost every character to be onstage at once, that's a difficult task. On tour, the mass ensemble scenes were sometimes staged awkwardly, feeling forced. Under Moreno's graceful touch, the second-act dinner scene, with everyone gathered in the dining room, had a hilarious moment when the entire clan joined hands for grace. In the tour, it was funny enough. But Moreno added a brilliant move that was met with thunderous laughter and applause from the audience.
It'll be interesting to see which North Texas professional theater does the show first. It's a tough one. Not only does it call for a huge cast, but the mammoth, multi-level set is a must.
The obvious choice, from a money perspective, would be Dallas Theater Center. But since they're located in the AT&T Performing Arts Center complex, and the tour was just there, that's unlikely to happen in the next few seasons. Other than DTC, the venue that could best handle the set would be WaterTower Theatre. Stage West could possibly manage it, even with a lower ceiling, and the play does fit that Fort Worth theater's sensibilities.
Whichever theater snags the rights, again, I say, pick Moreno and Dougherty.
Meanwhile, if you haven't discovered Moreno's talents as a director, check out his next project, directing the one-woman show No Child... at Fort Worth's Amphibian Stage Productions.