Dark, hilarious and harrowing

Director Christopher Liam Moore says he's been struck during rehearsals by how much "August: Osage County" elicits for people about their own families.

"It pushes a lot of buttons," says Moore.

Tracy Letts' drama about a dysfunctional family, which won both the Pulitzer and Tony awards three years ago, will open at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 23, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Angus Bowmer Theatre.

Moore saw the play about halfway through its Broadway run. He was so blown away, he called OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch to say OSF had to do it. The plum role of Violet, the family's cruel matriarch, went to Judith-Marie Bergan.

"It's hard to imagine anybody else in the role now," says Moore.

The winner of numerous prizes and critical acclaim, the play was named to dozens of "best of" lists, and New York Times critic Charles Isherwood called it "the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years."

Written by Letts for his fellow company members at Steppenwolf Theatre, the play premiered in June 2007 in Chicago, debuted on Broadway later that year and went to London's National Theatre the next year. A national tour of the New York production began in July of 2009.

The play is set on the plains of Oklahoma in the home of Beverly and Violet Weston. Violet is sharp-tongued and addicted to pills. Beverly is a hard-drinking former professor who disappears one hot evening, and the couple's three daughters return to learn what has happened. What follows is a harrowing and hilarious ride through a family's pathology.

Moore, who has directed "Dead Man's Cell Phone" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" at OSF, describes the play as "glorious." He says it is extremely dark and also extremely funny.

"It's very much a whole family story," he says.

One of the most heartbreaking moments is at end of the second act, when Violet's daughter, Barbara, calls for a "pill raid" and involves her 14-year-old daughter in the search for drugs.

"That to me is the heart of the tragedy," says Moore.

"These are very broken people. Not everybody gets a chance to redeem themselves. It's tragic, but you have a good time getting there."

In addition to Bergan, the cast features Richard Elmore as Beverly Weston, Robynn Rodriguez as Barbara Fordham, Terri McMahon as Ivy Weston, Catherine E. Coulson as Mattie Fae Aiken, Kate Mulligan as Karen Weston. Scenic design is by Neil Patel, who designed OSF's "American Night" last year.

Costumes are by Alex Jaeger, lighting by James F. Ingalls and original music and sound by Andre J. Pluess.

Letts is pretty specific about the set in the stage directions. Moore says Patel's old-farmhouse set is a two-and-a-half-story cutaway with a very contained feeling.

The play has been called sitcom-ish and soap opera-ish, notions Moore doesn't agree with.

"Those are pretty easy labels," he says. "Sitcom, I think, has to do with how funny it is and how available and familiar the humor is, but he pushed it further. He pulls the rug out from the audience. You're laughing, then something devastating happens.

"The soap reference is probably about the extreme behavior. There will be gasps and laughs, but there is tremendous sadness at the play's core. The tragic is right beside the comic. It's so much like life."

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