Review: ‘August Osage County’ at Marin Theatre Company (****)

by Charles Kruger

This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Oh God, It’s Another Family Reunion . . . 

“August: Osage County” is, by all accounts, an extraordinarily distinguished play. Firmly in the genre of the American play about dysfunctional families, it stands out for its accomplished presentation of a huge ensemble (thirteen fully realized characters), its poetic language, and its depth of insight. It is an exceptional showcase for excellent acting, and the outstanding cast of Marin Theatre Company’s production is fully up to the task.

The title of the play is also the tile of a poem by one of the playwright’s mentors, poet Howard Starks. The poem describes a family at the time of the death of a matriarch, gently reflecting on the necessity and inevitability of giving up the fight at last. It is a fitting theme for the play which features a dying matriarch who, though monstrous in her mind and spirit-addled drug addiction, has fought long and hard to be mother and wife to the best of her damaged ability.

The play has many references to poetry, particularly T. S. Eliot’s “Hollow Men”, which also speaks of the longness of life and features startling variations around the child’s rhyme “Here we go ’round the mulberry bush” — changing it to “here we go ’round the prickly pear” — perhaps, in Letts play, a reference to the prickliness of the Weston’s family dance.

Note the name of the family: Weston. Letts’s dysfunctional family (like Albee’s George and Martha — named after America’s first president and lady) is very specific and yet also stands in for our entire western (Weston) and American world, a world in which poetry has been short-changed.

It is a rich and wonderful play, and director Minadakis and his creative team have given it a rich and wonderful production.

Will Marchetti as family patriarch Beverly Weston, with Sherman Fracher (Violet Weston) in the background. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.
Will Marchetti as family patriarch Beverly Weston, with Sherman Fracher (Violet Weston) in the background. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.

August: Osage County famously begins with a speech by the charming, irascible, bitter, and drunken family patriarch, Beverly Weston, a once promising poet and long time second-fiddle professor in a second-fiddle school. He quotes Elliot’s poetry, reflects on its themes, and hires a young Native American woman to move into the attic of his home and care for himself and his difficult, drug addicted wife. He wonders why she would want to take such a job, in the middle of nowhere, with such people, but the young lady  assures him that she badly needs the money. It is a lovely, touching scene, full of half suggested implications and depth, puzzling and engaging, like the character of Beverly himself. Beverly is a vitally important character to the play, and Will Marchetti gives a finely tuned performance in the part. This is essential to the effectiveness of the entire piece, as Beverly disappears from the stage immediately after this.

 

In the very next scene, we find his distraught wife calling the family together (daughters and inlaws) because Beverly has disappeared. She thinks he might return, she worries he might not. Is he dead? Is he hiding? Has there been an accident?

Like many another family play, the death (here, the disappearance) of a patriarch or other family member, brings the family together under stressful circumstances that reveal character, family history and secrets, and allow an opportunity for profound reflections on life and death. It is a formula that worked wonders for Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and, indeed, countless playwrights before and since. It works.

Letts’s provides ample depth of character, family secrets and dramatic interactions. With thirteen characters, there are many opportunities to explore complex relationships and each actor in the company achieves excellence.

At the heart of the piece, however, is a remarkable performance by Kentucky-bsed actress Sherman Fracher as the matriarch Violet Weston.

Sherman Fracher as Beverly Weston. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.
Sherman Fracher as Beverly Weston. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.

This horrifically cruel character, a mother after the heart of Medea, could easily be played as an unsympathetic monster. Yet Ms. Fracher’s gifts of empathy and compassion show us the lady in the tiger, a feat she also accomplished as Amanda Wingfield in MTC’s production of The Glass Menagerie a few seasons ago. San Francisco is privileged to have her back again.

Recognition must also be given to J. B. Wilson’s wonderfully metaphorical set, which features a fantastically large, slanting dining table at which the family, seated at dinner, appear to be tottering on the brink of a precipice. It is fabulously surreal effect, which perfectly captures the feel of the play and the poetic underpinnings of this production.

This dance around the prickly pear is unforgettable.

“August: Osage County” plays through October 9 (extended run) at Marin Theatre Company. For further information click here

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Rating: ****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.

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“August: Osage County” by Tracy Letts. Produced by Marin Theatre Company. Director: Jasson Minadakis. Scenic Design: J. B. Wilson. Lighting Design: Kurt Landisman. Costume Design: Ashley Holvick. Sound Design: Theodore J. H. Hulsker. 

Cast:

Beverly: Will Marchetti. Violet: Sherman Fracher. Johnna: Kathleen PIzzo. Mattie Fae: Anne Darragh. Ivy: Danielle Levin. Charlie: Robert Sicular. Barbara: Arwen Anderson. Bill: David Ari. Jean: Danielle Bowen. Sheriff Deon Gilbeau Ryan Tasker. Karen: Joanne Lubeck. Steve: Peter Ruocco. Little Charles: Patrick Kelty Jones. 

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