'August: Osage County'

When Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.

Be advised: "August: Osage County," the 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts that opened Saturday at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is an emotional roller coaster.

Heartbreakingly tragic. Morbidly comic. Absolutely spell-binding. It is explosive — filled with uncharted land mines that detonate when you least expect them.

"August: Osage County" is a portrait of a family so dysfunctional it could be the prototype. Narcotic addiction, alcoholism, adultery, incest, physical and emotional abuse, sexual predators — it's got it all. It's also fiercely funny. Combine the rapid-fire zingers of sitcoms and the convoluted predicaments of soap opera with some textbook neuroses and you get the idea.

One of the most astonishing things about this remarkable production is director Christopher Liam Moore's skill at turning OSF's familiar, fine repertory actors into characters we have never seen them play before as he meticulously choreographs the play's intricate harmonies and dissonances.

At the center of this story is Violet Weston (Judith-Marie Bergan), a woman so mean-spirited, so spiteful and so wounded that you want to avert your eyes and duck down in your seat. Diagnosed with mouth cancer, addicted to painkillers and tranquilizers, Violet seems able to quash her own pain only by causing pain in others.

The play is set on the flat, harsh plains of Oklahoma in the small town of Pawhuska, near Tulsa. It opens in a sort of prologue. Violet's husband, Beverly Weston (Richard Elmore), a poet who parlayed one successful book into a comfortable and otherwise unremarkable life as a college professor, is explaining to Johnna (DeLanna Studi), the young American Indian woman he is hiring as the couple's housekeeper, what she can expect.

"My wife takes pills and I drink. That's the bargain we've struck."

When his ruminations are interrupted by Violet's lurching, violent, vituperative entrance, we begin to understand what he means. It is no surprise when we learn that Beverly has disappeared and not too difficult to believe the worst.

The Westons' three daughters all return to the homestead to comfort their mother and help find Dad. They are joined by Violet's abrasive older sister, Mattie Fae (Catherine E. Coulson), and her browbeaten husband, Charles (Tony DeBruno). However, Violet doesn't seem to need much loving support. Violet's method of coping is to lash out at everyone and everything, spewing destruction, using those fears, weaknesses and secrets that are buried in every family.

Ivy (Terri McMahon), the mousy middle sister, lives nearby and teaches at a local college. She deeply resents the fact that her siblings have moved away, leaving her to deal with the ugly decline of her parents' lives. She's never married but shares a bond with her first cousin, Mattie Fae's son, the even mousier Little Charles (Brent Hinkley).

The oldest daughter, Barbara (Robynn Rodriguez), arrives with her estranged husband, Bill (Bill Geisslinger), and their precocious, pot-smoking, 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Savannah Edson). Barbara, with her caustic humor, at first seems the sanest person in this eccentric family, but we begin to see that her emotional armor is as flawed as her mother's and forged from the same metal.

The youngest daughter, Karen (Kate Mulligan), is a package of clichés. A blowsy blonde of exaggerated gestures and bumper-sticker philosophy, she arrives with her smarmy businessman fiancé from Florida (Jeffrey King), more preoccupied with their imminent trip to Belize than she is with her father's probable demise.

Soon thereafter, the sheriff (Armando Duran), Barbara's diffident former high school boyfriend, breaks the news to the family that Beverly's body has been found in the local lake. As the family gathers for the post-funeral dinner, all hell breaks loose and no secrets are safe.

Bergan and Rodriguez are astonishing as they engage in their venomous repartée. Bergan is an unforgettable Violet, so pitiful that you almost forget how truly horrific she is. Rodriguez is especially harrowing as Barbara gradually morphs into a hard-drinking, domineering and vicious mirror image of her mother. Their performances are matched by absolutely everyone in the cast.

As always, OSF's technical production is excellent, especially scenic designer Neil Patel's multi-level set that appropriately evokes the play's claustrophobic ambience.

"August: Osage County" was written by Letts for his fellow members of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre and the play premiered there in summer 2007. It moved to Broadway in December of that year. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, it won a Tony Award and numerous other awards in 2008. New York Times critic Charles Isherwood called it "the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years." Moore saw the play during its Broadway run and called Artistic Director Bill Rauch to tell him that OSF had to do it.

He was right.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.

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