Review: August: Osage County | WaterTower Theatre | Karol Omlor Studio Theatre

Sweeping Down the Plains

At WaterTower Theatre, Tracy Letts' August: Osage County succeeds thanks to spot-on casting.

published Monday, April 9, 2012

It's too bad that Tracy Letts' Pultizer Prize- and Tony Award-winning soaped-up duh-rama August: Osage County is cost-prohibitive to produce, what with its large cast and set requirements.

Just think of all the fun that could be had with running it for a year or longer, changing casts every month or so. There are several choice options from the local talent pool; I could think of a few actors who would kill in these roles. Of course, you'd have to start with what is quite possibly the most perfect ensemble of local actors for this script, which René Moreno has already put together for the play's locally produced area premiere at WaterTower Theatre.

Moreno had a head start in that he directed it in 2010 at Oklahoma City Rep and brought Dallas actress Pam Dougherty up to play the lead role of Violet Weston, the painkiller-addicted matriarch of the Weston clan in northern Oklahoma. 

I saw that production and was blown away by the depth she brought to this doped-up, dagger-tongued woman. Dougherty in that role is spot-on casting, and it's even better at WaterTower because the rest of the ensemble is equally brilliant.

If you look at Osage county on a map of Oklahoma, it's funny that the left side kind of looks like the head of a dinosaur-like monster, its mouth spewing forth another county called Noble (click the slideshow icon below the photo box on this review to see a map of the state's counties). Nothing noble comes from the pieholes of these characters, and that's part of what makes this three-act play so entertaining. It's one killer insult and raucously funny line after another. But yet, devastating in its sadness.

Thing is, you actually start caring about these people. That's a credit to Letts, who had some practice with creating awful yet likable characters with his earlier play Killer Joe.

The August story starts with Violet's husband, Beverly Weston (Cliff Stephens), interviewing a potential live-in housekeeper, Johnna (newcomer Sasha Truman-McGonnell, proving herself a welcome addition to the local scene), who's of Cheyenne heritage. When Beverly goes missing, the family comes to help Violet. They include Violet's sister Mattie Fae (a hysterical Nancy Sherrard) and brother-in-law Charlie (Tom Lenaghen), and their 37-year-old son Little Charles (Clay Yocum). Then there's Violet's three daughters, still-single Ivy (Kristin McCollum), the more stable Barbara (Sherry Jo Ward) and Karen (Jessica Cavanagh). The latter two wised up and flew this coop years ago.

Barbara brings her husband, Bill (James Crawford), from whom we find out she has separated, and their teenage stoner daughter Jean (Ruby Westfall). Karen has a new fiancé, Steve (Chris Hury), with his own baggage. Stan Graner plays the sheriff, who brings news to the family and turns out, was the prom date of Barbara.

Yes, it gets soapy. But even when it starts to feel clichéd as we find out how the characters are connected to one another, and even after seeing it a few times, the surprises still feel surprising. It never has a case of, as one character calls it, "the plains." That's largely because of Letts' skill with building up the reveals and the big moments, almost to the point where there doesn't seem to be anymore over-the-top places to go. Somehow, director Moreno finds them.

If you saw the show on Broadway or the tour that came to Dallas in early 2010, the biggest and most welcome surprise you'll find in this staging is in the role of Barbara. With her shoulder-length dirty blonde hair, Ward plays her as more down-to-earth, but still uptight.

Lenaghen rightfully earns audience applause in Charlie's dinner table speech and his third-act verbal take-down of his overbearing wife. Yocum's Little Charlie is less of a reclusive weirdo and more a lovable doofus, which makes his romantic subplot more believable.

Aside from the big performance halls or the Wyly Theatre, WaterTower has the only theater space in town that could accommodate a three-story dollhouse set this well, and designer Rodney Dobbs does it justice. Nice work from costumer Barbara Cox, too.

If part of the definition of a classic is that you find new layers everytime you read and/or see it, then this play is well on its way to that status. A big part of that, of course, comes from the direction and acting. For their part, Moreno and this ensemble put an indelible stamp on a work that will no doubt be revived frequently. Thanks For Reading

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Sweeping Down the Plains
At WaterTower Theatre, Tracy Letts' August: Osage County succeeds thanks to spot-on casting.
by Mark Lowry

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