by Sharon Falduto
Photos by Jackie Blake Jensen
Coralville – Tracy Lett’s August: Osage County, presented by City Circle Acting Company of Coralville at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts on October 21 and 22 at 7:30 and October 23 at 2pm, is not a lighthearted romp. It’s a cynical, engaging and harrowing look at a dysfunctional family flayed open like a fish and displayed for antagonistic consumption.
It’s the story of a family. Matriarch Violet Weston (Krista Neumann) has cancer of the mouth, and an addiction to painkillers. Her husband, Beverly (Kevin Burford), hires a young Native American woman as a caretaker for the house and for his wife.
Burford’s Beverly is a long-winded monologist, telling the young woman, Johnna, of his favorite poets and quoting Eliot in the middle of what is allegedly a hiring interview. Beverly is the sort of grandpa given to long stories; he’s the type of man you’d expect to find at Hy-Vee on a weekday morning, drinking his coffee and holding forth on all matter of subjects to rapt listeners. After he hires Johnna, he disappears.
His disappearance brings together the fractured members of the family. First beleaguered daughter Ivy (Carrie Houchins-Witt), who endures insults to her character, her style, and her beauty while helping her mother through this difficult time. Ivy is the daughter who stayed home in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. Houchins-Witt portrays her with the long suffering patience expected of the caretaking daughter—both careworn from the constant barrage of insults from her mother, and caring about her mother’s well-being.
Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Roxanne Gustaveson) visits to help Violet, bringing her henpecked husband Charlie (Rip Russell). Gustaveson’s Roxanne is a powerful force; a Southern belle with the bouffant and mascara of a Tammy Faye baker and the kind of loudmouthed demeanor unique to women over 50 who no longer have any cares to give. I was both drawn to and repelled from this character; a larger than life force of nature who seemed to show empathy for her sister only because it was expected, and with no concern and an obvious disappointment in her adult son. Russell’s Charlie Aiken is probably the most sympathetic character in the play. Dominated by his wife, he takes his own comfort in small ways: watching baseball while the family falls into chaos around him and joking in small ways to ease the tension that builds. His affable nature makes the play all that more riveting when he finally draws himself up to face his formidable wife. Russell is excellent in this final confrontation with his wife.
Next, prodigal sister Barbara Fordham (Robyn Calhoun) returns from Colorado with her husband, Bill (Tad Paulson), and 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Amy Evans). At first we see Barbara joking with her husband, but a simple shrug of her shoulders as he tries to comfort her shows that there is trouble between them. Calhoun’s Barbara veers convincingly from strength to vulnerability throughout the show, capturing a woman in the middle of the heartbreak of caring for her mother, worrying about her daughter, and losing her marriage, all within the same month. On paper her husband, Bill, is a cad; on stage, Tad Paulson portrays the adulterous Bill with a careworn humility that makes him more endearing than he has a right to be. He may have left Barbara, but for now, in her time of need, he is here. Amy Evans portrays teenage daughter Jean as a girl in that twilight zone between being a little girl and being a woman; obviously still in need of adult guidance but also convinced that she’s grown up enough to manage her own vices.
Finally, in Act II, the third and final Weston daughter comes home. Leslie Nolte’s Karen is a self-centered woman; rambling on for tens of minutes without lifting a finger to help while her older sister Barbara sets the table for family dinner. She is happy, finally, she wants Barbara to know. She has finally found the man of her dreams; a good family man who will take care of her and treat her the way she believes she deserves to be treated.
The minute her fiancé Steve Heidebrecht (Bryant Duffy), walks in to the room, we know that this man is a typical sleazy playboy. It is apparent not only from his demeanor—clearly finding himself somewhat above the modest surroundings of the Weston home—but also from his all black outfit, skinny pants, and pointed shoes. Credit to costume designer Bethany Horning for telling the audience everything it needs to know about Steve before he even opens his mouth.
K. Michael Moore’s Little Charles, the son of Charlie and Mattie Fae Aiken, is a complicated character. When he first appears, late for an important event because he overslept, his sense of disappointment in himself is palpable. He almost seems to be a man on the spectrum of some kind of disability. His tone veers, however, into much more self-confidence when in the presence of his favorite cousin, Ivy.
It is the family’s matriarch, Krista Neumann’s Violet Weston, who is the true heart, backbone, and spleen of this show. Every inch of her dialogue veers from loving to sarcastic to hatred without missing a turn; she shows care for her daughters not by loving compliments but by backhanded insults and by telling them how lucky they are to have been well-cared-for, as opposed to her own childhood. When Neumann’s Violet, suffering from mouth cancer and a pill addiction, slips into moments of dementia many members of the audience laughed at her slurred words and her stumbling, halting steps. I couldn’t laugh; I found the transformation from strong acerbic woman to lost wraith heartbreaking.
Chandler Hamm’s Johnna is the only member of the household without a tragic backstory or a family secret to expose bitterly in the middle of the living room, and she is clearly meant to be the audience’s “in” to this dysfunctional family. Hamm portrayed her with a quiet dignity, cleaning up after the Weston’s dish-breaking fights without complaint, sitting quietly in her attic room reading while chaos descends below.
Justin Ford’s Sheriff Deon Gilbeau is the perfect Southern sheriff; with a quiet deference to the family while still retaining an aura of authority, and even a stereotypical Southern sheriff moustache.
To director Liz Tracey’s credit, the three act play, although long, never dragged. Every scene crackled with tight dialogue, and one could feel the bonds between characters forming and breaking and reshaping through each scene. The highlight—or lowlight—of the show is a hair-pulling brawl in the middle of the living room, blocked by Tracey and choreographed for safety by Houchins-Witt. Whereas before the characters hurt each other with words, they finally come to actual physical blows.
Michael Blake’s set is amazing. It’s a three story house, cut open to show its secrets to the world. Every level hosts some of the show’s action; characters wait in the background of other bedrooms, occupied with phones or books while not directly involved in the scene. The living room and kitchen are perfectly retro, creating a sense of familiarity for an audience to insert itself into the show.
That a play with this much vitriol exists lead this reviewer to wonder just what the playwright was thinking. Is this his own family? I was surprised to discover that Tracy Letts is the son of Billie Letts, author of (among other things) Where the Heart Is; the heartwarming story of a young woman who has a baby in a Wal-Mart. His own family did have its share of dysfunction, starting with a grandfather who committed suicide when he was ten.
Fair warning, August: Osage County is long. Plan to pay the babysitter extra. It sparks emotion. As cast member Robyn Calhoun remarked after the show, a friend came backstage and when asked “Did you like the show?” responded “No! I hated it! And I hated you…and you….” as she pointed to each character. But this is not a hatred borne from a bad script or bad acting. Every actor was at the top of his or her game. No, this is a hatred borne from a play that may be a little too close to the bone for many viewers.
It is better, however, to watch the family breakdown from the comfort of the audience, and then be able to leave—rather than to watch from inside our own family bubble as our racist uncle tells us how Muslims are ruining our country. It’s the play as catharsis, rather than simple entertainment. And in that regard, it is definitely worth the investment of your time.