A Stellar “August: Osage County” at The Old Globe

 

Director Sam Gold’s staging of “August: Osage County” at the Old Globe closes with the quiet Native American housekeeper Johnna standing at the top of a steep staircase that leads to her attic room. Below her is cruel, cancer-ridden Violet, struggling up step by awkward step, desperately seeking human connection. For more than three hours we have watched this vicious Violet hasten the ruin of her own family. So we’re pretty sure that what she’s actually looking for is someone to abuse.

Johnna just stands there, not responding, patience personified. Hanging around her neck is the Cheyenne talisman she’s had since birth – her own umbilical cord in a pouch “because if we lose it, our soul belongs nowhere and after we die, our souls wander around the Earth looking for where we belong.” Violet, on the other hand, is already a restless ghost, alive but long soul dead, harrowing and haunting.

I sat there looking at Johnna, thinking of Dilsey in “As I Lay Dying.” Faulkner’s sweeping novel about the disintegration of the Compton clan closes with the help, too — the black housemaid Dilsey, her once enslaved family surviving when the Comptons don’t. Surveying her employers’ ruin over thirty years, Dilsey knows she and her family have “endured.”

It’s rare that a recent American play brings such long and literary thoughts to mind. Rarer still that such a challenging script – especially outside of London, New York or maybe Chicago where Osage originated in 2007 at Steppenwolf—gets a production as brilliant and satisfying top to bottom, beginning to end, as this one.

I’ve been reviewing theater since 1976, but only twice before have I experienced the minute-to-minute vibrancy and eyeball-searing truth that gripped me at the Old Globe, making time fly.

One of those other times was during the Almeida Theatre revival of Eugene O’Neill’s similarly big-cast epic “The Iceman Cometh” with Kevin Spacey on Broadway. Four hours after the curtain went up on Harry Hope’s saloon with its down and out regulars (played by Paul Giamatti, Tony Danza, Robert Sean Leonard among others), I was still on the edge of my seat, hanging on their every word, every pause. I could have watched those people (and that’s what they seemed, real people, not characters or actors) talk, drink, deny, reveal, then lose their pipe dreams all night long.

Ditto for Pina Bausch and the multi-talented dance actors who collaborated in creating her “1980,” a bitterly funny, more than four-hour long talk-dance that played Los Angeles during the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival. The midnight hour struck and those artists could have gone on telling their dark tales all night, the ensemble itself had such vitality and the work such truth and urgency.

The ensemble vitality of the Letts-Gold production provides all those things and a gasp-inducing, chills-and-thrills good time as well. And “August: Osage County” is not that long, about three-and-a-half hours, uncut Shakespeare length.

Set in the nowhere land of Osage County, Oklahoma during the sweltering dog days of August, “Osage” unfolds as both a tragic family drama like O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night” and a pitch black dysfunctional family comedy like Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child” or “A Lie of the Mind.” But if Osage isn’t as emotionally profound as “Journey,” it does have greater political resonance and it also possesses the psychologically rounded characters missing in Shepard. It’s no knock-off, or even homage.

Many of its satisfactions come from old-fashioned, melodramatic turns of plot — surprises and revelations engineered into its structure. In his blood-soaked earlier potboiler “Bug,” Letts played with psychological horror, exploring the seeping contagion of a paranoiac who has infected his girlfriend. But “August: Osage County” is of another order of magnitude, the suffocating inbred viciousness of unhappy Violet spiders out through three generations and seems emblematic not only of a family but of a country that has lost its way.

Unable to love without hate and greed, the Westons’ implosion took me back, though subtly, not only to Faulkner, but to the early days of the Bush-Cheney war in Iraq when the swaggering President declared, as Violet does, (Phyrric) victory among the ruins. But that’s a different post.

A master of pacing and pause, telling gesture and spontaneous-seeming effects, director Gold wrings shock from every hair-pin turn of tone in Letts’ script. And because the casting is pitch-perfect at the Globe, those moments feel natural, not manipulative. You sit there wondering, what can possibly be worse than that. And sure enough, something is – usually from the flame-throwing mouth of Violet, though every character gets his or her due, a shot at soul-baring self-revelation. Sometimes the densely-plotted piece feels so emotionally fraught it seems an ensemble opera, aria succeeding aria.

But there is a center to this. And actor Lois Markle (pictured above) holds it. She’s beyond good as Violet, really frightening as this guilt-provoking, slash-and-burn, drug-addicted “mother.” Gaunt, nearly bald from chemo, chain-smoking, slurring her words, staggering about in a flimsy nightgown, she takes no prisoners. Her proudest boast is that no one slips anything past her, including her three grown daughters who have gathered at the rambling homestead because their father, an award-winning poet whose voice was long ago silenced by drink, has gone missing. One-by-one, Violet eviscerates them — with truth, or her version of it.

Like Shakespeare’s Richard III, she takes pleasure in exercising her power to destroy – and she shares that pleasure with us. She’s a monster, all right, but she’s also human, broken and bleakly hilarious. When she shows up conservatively dressed, wearing wig and make-up, Markle’s Violet briefly evokes pity for her and her family’s fall.

We meet missing husband Beverly only in a prologue during which he hires Johnna (Kimberly Guerrero) to cook and drive Violet to her doctor appointments. But he also lays it on the line. Violet takes pills; he drinks. That’s their marriage contract. Beverly also ponders the lives of three modern poets he admires — John Berryman, Hart Crane and T.S. Eliot whose lines from “The Hollow Men” frame the evening.

But much as he loves Eliot’s work, Beverly prefers the character of the other two who checked out of the world on their own suicidal terms. Eliot placed his problematic wife in an institution and got on with his life “brilliantined and double-breasted and Anglican.” And that’s the last we hear from Beverly and from the utterly convincing and sympathetic actor Robert Foxforth who plays him.

Each of his daughters has reacted differently to parental absence and dysfunction. Barbara, the oldest and now menopausal, married a college humanities professor and has a teenage girl, a smart aleck pothead. The husband Bill is with them, but only for comfort and show; he’s had an affair with a student and the couple has separated. In a richly impressive performance, actor Angela Reed spirals downward and out of control as Barbara, for “home” exerts an inevitable pull. Raging at Bill and her daughter, flailing through an intervention with Violet, she’s inexorably driven to become what she hates — her mother.

The plain middle sister, Ivy, age 44, stayed close to home and works at nearby college. She’s not just self-effacing, but self-erasing. Yet she’s embarked on a secret affair (and has hatched an escape plan) with her similarly afflicted, ineffectual cousin, Little Charlie. Letts gives even Ivy, in a wrenching turn by actor Carla Harting at the Globe, one sibling scene of searing insight and another of tragic dimension.

The youngest Karen, blond, bubbly and babbling with false optimism, arrives with an oily new fiance who markets some shady contracting service in the Middle East. One look at this Steve (actor Rober Maffia), and you know the guy’s a pervert. And that Karen’s been ricocheting from man to man, self-help guru to Scientology for the ballast she never got on the primal scene back in OK.

And then there’s Violet’s sister Mattie Fae, blowsy, nearly-normal it seems and long married to the genial Charlie, a ray of sunlight in this Gothic hothouse. Actor Robin Pearson Rose, a Globe associate artist seen there often in depressive roles, just shines as the exuberant Mattie Fae. No point in revealing the twists we don’t see coming from this live-wire character, whose meanness extends to mocking her own son. But I can say that actor Guy Boyd, as her sweetheart of a husband, twice brings lighthearted comic relief to the family dinner table until Violet takes aim once again.

All thirteen actors are excellent. To single out every one of them and all the collaborators who worked on this thoroughly unified vision of the script would only result in a repetitive litany of superlatives. David Zinn’s atmospheric, subtly changing set does deserve mention. A book-and-clutter filled three story construction, it’s open-faced like a doll house or glass-fronted ant-farm, telling us much that we need to know about the Westons—then and now. Fitz Patton’s sound design brings a swarm of locusts ever closer during the play’s three acts, a plague upon this house.

What a play. What a production. What a community of artists. I’ll never forget it. San Diegans will be talking about it for years. Need I say, see it.

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