Jonathan J. Miner
From Medea to King Lear, to the modern classics Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Long Day’s Journey into Night and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, certain plays delve so deeply into family dysfunction that the viewer feels less like an audience member and more like a witness to a disaster — a gawker at the scene of a car accident that is too gruesome and captivating to turn away from. August: Osage County is one of these plays. The semi-autobiographical drama by Tracy Letts was so gripping when it was first produced at Steppenwolf in 2007 that it quickly traveled to Broadway, earned many accolades including six Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize, and was swiftly made into a movie packed with superstars, led by Meryl Streep.
Now the multigenerational story of love, betrayal, abuse, addiction and just plain meanness has arrived in Madison in a production by Mercury Players Theater on the Bartell’s Drury stage through March 25. Deftly directed by David Pausch, the play features Madison’s own cast of superstars whose work in a complicated ensemble, as well as in individual moments, is astounding.
The play, clocking in at three hours including two intermissions, feels like a sprawling miniseries set on the sweltering plains of Oklahoma. The extended family is called to gather around the aging and unwell matriarch, Violet Weston (a fierce Peggy Rosin), when her alcoholic poet husband (a steady and reflective Coleman) goes missing. In the weeks following his funeral, the family wrestles with a host of old demons and discovers new ones that range from the quaint complaint “Mom always liked you best” to revelations about affairs, prescription drug abuse and predatory sexual behavior. In each generation stories of cruelty are paired with strength, parental love is mingled with crushing disappointment, and obligation to the family is weighed against the desperation to become independent.
The 13 local actors are exceptionally well cast and gel quite convincingly as a family. As the erratic, pill-popping, sharp-tongued matriarch, Rosin is a force to be reckoned with. She vacillates between competent but overbearing mother, petulant sadist and feeble-minded child as she copes with her husband’s death, her battle with cancer and her own disappointments. As Barbara, Miranda Hawk plays the daughter most able to go toe-to-toe with her. She throws herself into the maelstrom while struggling with issues in her own marriage to Bill, a menschy, kind, but flawed man played with compassion by John Jajewski, and her rebellious teenage daughter Jean, portrayed with fragile confidence by Stacey Garbarski. There are many journeys to follow in this large cast, but Barbara’s is the most complete and compelling, thanks to Hawk’s brassy, sometimes desperate, often-vulnerable performance. Her final scene is the most satisfying of the night.
Though the play is structured around the women in the Weston family, the guys get some remarkable moments too; notably Lee Waldhart’s scenes as Charlie, interacting with, and defending his oddball son Little Charles (played with equal parts heart and awkwardness by Matt Korda). And while the loudest characters on stage routinely command our attention, the quiet scenes between Little Charles and Ivy Weston (a delicate and downtrodden Deborah Hearst) are the most touching, as these two misfits of the family find real love with each other.
In the eye of the hurricane is Johnna Monevata (played with beautiful simplicity by Gina Gomez), a Cheyenne woman who was hired to care for Violet. She observes the action from her room in the attic, stepping in with quiet strength to cook meals, care for family members and protect them from harm. A young woman whose parents have died, she wears a traditional necklace that keeps her centered and grounded. Unlike the members of the Weston family, who are descended from pioneers who settled on the Oklahoma plains, this place is her home. It is fitting that she is one of only two characters who remain at the play’s end.
Director Pausch keeps the play moving with inventive staging, using every doorway and corner of the remarkable, multi-level set (designed by Dan Myers) that is both realistic and symbolic, as real walls are stripped to bare boards that fade into darkness. Pausch also allows the family to interact onstage as families do; talking over one another, splitting up into factions, some hiding, some listening on the stairway, some sleeping on the couch.
Whether the play is a black comedy, a tragedy or a bit of both probably depends on the audience’s own family relationships. Whatever your background, there is plenty here that is cringeworthy, heartbreaking and real.