By John Quinn
“Life is very long” – T. S. Eliot
“August: Osage County” is also very long and worth every minute. Winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Play, it demonstrates that sometimes they do make things like they used to. Playwright Tracy Letts, a regular at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, takes hints from the playbooks of masters Eugene O’Neill and Edward Albee as he writes on one of the great classic motifs of tragedy, the dysfunctional family. It’s audacious for a small theater like The Ringwald to undertake a challenge of this magnitude, but director Joe Bailey and company have produced a marvel.
“August: Osage County” is a tough work to pigeonhole, but it’s been described as a “tragicomedy.” A play that begins and ends with quotes from Eliot’s bleak poem “The Hollow Men” is likely to be a downer, but Letts injects a lot of levity into his script; the better to soften the effect of some really unlikable characters. But ultimately, he’s written a classic, three-act family drama that pays homage to O’Neill’s “A Long Day’s Journey into Night.” That a three hours-plus running time can breeze by is due to a happy union of script, director and actors.
It’s fortunate for theater patrons that the Ringwald family is happier than the Westons of Pawhuska, Okla. Beverly Weston (Dan Jaroslaw) is an aging poet, a one-hit wonder and alcoholic, who has spent decades writing his second book. Beverly disappears. The Weston clan, with assorted entourages in tow, assembles to lend support to the family matriarch, Violet (Jane MacFarlane), a victim of oral cancer who is heavily addicted to prescription drugs. We meet the Weston daughters – first, Barbara (Kelly Komlen), in from Colorado with her philandering husband, Bill (Travis Reiff), and their rebellious daughter, Jean (Katie Terpstra). Middle child Ivy (Jamie Warrow) didn’t have far to travel – she’s a spinster and still living in town. Karen (Melissa Beckwith) flies in from Florida with a contemptible companion – her fiance, Steve (Bryan Lark). Also in attendance are Violet’s waspish sister, Mattie Fae (Jan Cartwright), her docile husband Charlie (Patrick O’Lear), and their adult son, Little Charles (Joel Mitchell).
So much family under one roof is bound to create critical mass, and the explosion is inevitable. Old grudges are revived, secrets revealed, true characters burst to the surface. While the audience can be sympathetic toward this sad family, there is the urge to stand above the fray and simply observe – as does the housekeeper, Johnna (Amy Probst), and Deon Gilbeau (Jamie Richards), Barbara’s old beau.
“August: Osage County” explores the clash between generations: mother versus daughters, but specifically, Violet versus Barbara. While all the actors in this production bring a raw honesty to their characters, we are inevitably drawn to the outstanding performances of Jane MacFarlane and Kelly Komlen. Violet is a bitter, vindictive woman, and MacFarlane wrings out every character flaw, both as sober tyrant and drug-addled mess. Komlen executes a dramatic build to Barbara’s anger, culminating in the explosive, “You don’t get it, do you? I’m running things now!” as she and her mother struggle for dominance.
Kudos to scenic designer Adam Crinson, who has managed to cram three-and-a-half playing areas in the tight space of The Ringwald, a feat akin to parking a Bentley in a walk-in closet. This was accomplished by throwing convention to the winds and putting the audience three quarters round and setting a massive dining room table among us. Joe Bailey took full advantage of the arrangement; when the entire family sits down to a rancorous meal officiated by an out-of-control Violet, we onlookers share the experience – and the tumultuous emotions -as an unholy communion.
The press release for “August: Osage County reads in part, “Capping off a successful ‘Season of Family,’ The Ringwald has indeed saved what is arguably the best for last.” They sure got that right. And, to thoroughly taunt T. S. Eliot, “This is the way the season ends/Not with a whimper but a bang!”
‘August: Osage County’
The Ringwald Theatre, 22742 Woodward Ave., Ferndale. Friday-Monday through June 3. $10-22. 3 hours, 10 minutes; 2 intermissions. 248-545-5545. http://www.theringwald.com