Stage Review: August: Osage County – a darkly funny tidal wave of family drama

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You think family gatherings at your home are tough?  Wait until you meet the Weston clan, a dysfunctional generational mix that will have you wincing between the laughs in the Arts Club presentation of August: Osage County.

As the story opens, patriarch Beverly Weston (Sean Allan) has gone missing.  His wife Violet (Nora McLellan) is not only full of grief but a whole cornucopia of pharmaceuticals as well.  Her chemical dependency is supposedly due to her fight with mouth cancer but we quickly learn this isn’t the first time Violet has found a monkey on her back.  Violet’s rage and disdain for her children, and there is a lot of it here, is only enhanced by the Oxycontin, Valium, Vicodin, Percocet and more that is coursing through her system; the majority of it however comes to her naturally, and perhaps from her own up-bringing, of which she is not afraid to remind everyone.

First to arrive at the family home is Violet’s sister Mattie (Susinn McFarlen) who, while not quite to the level of her sibling, can still cut through her own child’s heart like a knife.  She is paired with husband Charlie (Brian Linds) who doesn’t have a single mean bone in his body, but we find out that doesn’t necessarily make him a wuss.

As the hours and days pass, the three Weston daughters arrive: Barbara (Karin Konoval), who we quickly learn hasn’t fallen too far from the tree; Ivy (Wendy Noel) whose secret is doubled by an even bigger secret; and Karen (Megan Leitch), the youngest daughter who claims to finally be in a place of happiness, but at what cost?

In addition to this central group are Barbara’s estranged husband Bill (Andrew Wheeler), their pot-smoking daughter Jean (Anais West), Mattie and Charlie’s slacker son Little Charles (John Murphy), Karen’s fiancée Steve (Mackenzie Gray) and two outsiders: the Cheyenne housekeeper Johnna (Quelemia Sparrow) and the local Sheriff (Gerry Mackay).

Confused by the large cast of characters?  Not to worry, the show’s Playbill presents them all neatly in a family tree complete with photos, although I think it is more there for fun than for any confusion the audience might have in distinguishing relationships.

A definite ensemble piece, it was refreshing to see such meaty roles for the five female leads.  Led by a wonderful performance by McLellan, who moves as easily from the bitch that refuses to eat her catfish to the drugged out matriarch dancing to Eric Clapton, she is matched by Konoval who we watch as she flirts with becoming the one woman she detests the most: her own mother, albeit without the pharmaceutical help.  McFarlen and Linds are just as strong amongst the more supporting players.

The cast of the Arts Club Theatre Company production of August: Osage County
The cast of the Arts Club Theatre Company production of August: Osage County. Photo by David Cooper.

Ted Roberts three level set is about as big as some of the personalities on stage and lighting designer Marsha Sibthorpe easily moves us from scene to scene, often times with low light as family members lurk in the various rooms.  Brian Linds’ music interludes are a nice touch.

The talk pre-show, and even on Twitter, last night was around the length of the show and its two intermissions.  Clocking in at almost 3 ½ hours, including those two intermissions, the show never really feels its length, testament to Playwright Tracy Letts’ engaging script and the performances on stage that director Janet Wright effectively pulls from her cast.

Go, spend some time with the Weston family, for once you come out of this darkly funny tidal wave of family drama, I have no doubt you’ll look at your own family gatherings with a little less apprehension.

4 Out of 5 Stars August: Osage County

By Tracy Letts.  Directed by Janet Wright.  An Arts Club Theatre Company production. On stage at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage through February 27, 2011.

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