‘August: Osage County’ detonates brilliantly on P’town stage
By Howard Karren
Last May, the Provincetown Theater’s then-new artistic director, David Drake, began his first season with “You Can’t Take It With You,” a big, old-fashioned Kaufman and Hart comedy about an endearingly eccentric family. The ensemble production was performed by locals and aimed at locals, before the tourist season had begun in earnest, so they could bask in their oddball charm. As a gambit, it worked, laying a foundation for more serious and ambitious fare in the months ahead. It reassured the community that the theater that bears its name, previously struggling, was back. Drake has a knack for timing, and prodigious gifts as a director. This May, he has chosen another ensemble play to open the season, Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County,” only this one is not lighthearted and has no need to be reassuring. It’s a big, fat, Pulitzer Prize-winning family melodrama, three acts and three hours long, hilarious and dark, familiar yet fresh, filled with drugs, alcohol, viciousness and despair, as well as adultery, lechery and even incest. It’s being performed as true community theater, with mostly local and nonprofessional talent. But as you sit in the inventively reconfigured Provincetown Theater, its two-level stage extending lengthwise through the middle of the auditorium, with raked seats on either side, you will experience an exhilarating theatrical spectacle, one that equals and often exceeds the efforts of well-funded pros. This “August: Osage County” is, simply, not to be missed. There are only two more weeks to the run, which ends May 26, so I urge you to waste no time in seeing it.
The family in “August: Osage County,” the Westons, whose house lies out on the plains of Oklahoma, are plagued by secrets, abusive traps and selfish escapes that Outer Cape audiences will undoubtedly relate to — it’s all hetero, but hardly normative. The patriarch, Beverly (Adam Peck), is a poet and a drunk. As the play opens, he hires a Native American aide, Johnna (Sandra Paredes), to take care of the house and look after his wife, Violet (Jaris Hanson), a raging prescription drug addict who is suffering from mouth cancer. He quotes T.S. Eliot, then disappears.
His suspicious absence lasts several days, and draws the couple’s children, three grown daughters in their 40s, back to the homestead, along with some relatives. The middle daughter, Ivy (Laura Cappello), somewhat mannish, straight-talking and single, lives nearby. The oldest, Barbara (Anne Stott), who always fought hardest with their gargoyle of a mother, arrives from Colorado with her college professor husband, Bill (Tim Famulare) — he has left her for one of his students, but they haven’t told anyone — and their 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Celia Cota). The youngest Weston sister, Karen (Vanessa Rose), a self-deluded flake, shows up with her sleazy fiancé, Steve (Dave LaFrance), who flirts with teen Jean and offers her pot. Violet’s blustery sister, Mattie Fae (Jennifer Cabral), joins the crowd with her husband, Charlie (Ian Leahy), and socially challenged grown son, Little Charles (Colin Delaney). Throw in Sheriff Deon (Nathaniel Hall Taylor), an old flame of Barbara’s, who comes a-knockin’ with bad news, and the gang’s all here.
While this motley crew squabbles with one another, resurrecting old resentments and revealing new problems, the center stage is held by the gladiatorial mother-daughter face-off between Violet and Barbara. (The men in this play are, for the most part, peripheral.) As the ever-volatile Violet, Jaris Hanson, a seasoned vet, doesn’t overdo the theatrics, and that opens things up for Anne Stott, whose flawlessly modulated and intensely focused performance as Barbara is a standout: her silent reactions to everything that happens onstage are revelatory. Laura Cappello, who played Patsy Cline at the theater last fall, does a fascinating job fleshing out the misfit-like Ivy, and Vanessa Rose is charmingly shallow as Karen. Jennifer Cabral and Ian Leahy, the reallife couple playing Mattie Fae and Charlie, stealthily mine all the comedy and pathos that their roles can offer. There’s really not a weak link in the entire ensemble, and it’s a testament to director Drake that the overall quality of the performances remains so high.
What’s more, the production itself is a stunner. Scenic designer Ellen Rousseau keeps topping herself in show after show at the Provincetown Theater. Her decon-structed Weston house, a lined-up series of rooms, beautifully translates the multilevel proscenium set of the original Steppenwolf production into theater-in-the-round. The chiaroscuro lighting of John Salutz sets just the right mood (funereal, with sparks), and the sound design by Sam Sewell works without a hitch.
Drake’s interpretation of “August: Osage County” is so well-conceived and well-executed, it renders the 2013 movie adaptation, with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts (both Oscar-nominated), thoroughly dispensable. The play’s vision of American domesticity is demoralizing and disillusioning, yet it soars to a plane of enlightenment that makes the journey worthwhile. It is, to misquote Eliot, much more of a bang than a whimper.
The Weston family says grace, in “August: Osage County” at the Provincetown Theater, clockwise from left front: Charlie (Ian Leahy), Mattie Fae (Jennifer Cabral), Violet (Jaris Hanson), Barbara (Anne Stott), Steve (Dave LaFrance), Karen (Vanessa Rose), Little Charles (Colin Delaney — partially blocked), Ivy (Laura Cappello) and Bill (Tim Famulare). Hands reach out to a side table where, out of view, Johnna (Sandra Paredes) and Jean (Celia Cota) are seated. [PHOTOS JOHN SALUTZ]
The Weston women, in “August: Osage County”: Violet (Jaris Hanson, seated in pajamas) and left to right, daughters Ivy (Laura Cappello), Karen (Vanessa Rose) and Barbara (Anne Stott).