August: Osage County is the perfect summer drama in name only. This is a month for vacation-town summer stock and touring musicals at Wolf Trap. Late summer is not, generally speaking, the time when people want to escape the heat by sitting through a nearly four-hour play about a fatally dysfunctional family. Or is it?
What if you came home from your own vacation ready to kill someone, metaphorically speaking? Maybe your oafish brother-in-law, your nosey aunt, or—God forbid—your own parents. Then you should go see August in August, because it’s important to be reminded that no matter how frustrating your relatives may be, they cannot possibly be as fucked up as the Westons of Osage County.
It took guts for Keegan Theatre, one of Washington’s high-end non-Equity troupes, to take on Tracy Letts’ 2008 Pulitzer and Tony award-winning play. But August: Osage County is so a well-written drama that even a lower-budget production is worth seeing if you missed the play’s two-year Broadway run and the 2009 tour that came through the Kennedy Center. Keegan’s cast is led by Rena Cherry Brown as Violet Weston, the pill-popping matriarch whose passive-aggressive parenting resulted in a continent-wide family diaspora. The inciting incident that recalls two of the three daughters to Oklahoma is the disappearance of Violet’s husband, a much lauded poet who wasn’t so much long-suffering as he was a longtime fan of Jack Daniels.
Scenic designer Stefan Gibson has done a nice job converting Keegan’s cozily decrepit theater into a cozily decrepit Oklahoma farmhouse. Back home comes oldest daughter Barbara (Susan Marie Rhea), a midlevel academic, and Karen, the youngest daughter, a Florida sun- and husband-seeker. The best performer in the trio is Belen Pifel, who is a bit young for the role but otherwise convincing as middle daughter Ivy, a daddy’s girl who teaches at a local college.
It gives too much away to say anything more than this: Each of these sisters is having relationship problems, and the one whose husband is banging a college coed has it easy. Letts paces his revelations carefully: You laugh, another crisis is revealed, you cringe. Repeat again and again until there are only two characters left in the house and one of them is sobbing.
Dialogue delivery is crucial, and director Mark A. Rhea could work with his cast a bit on repartee. The role of Barbara is especially nuanced, but as the play wears on, the vehement disgust Susan Rhea conveys toward her character’s mother—and toward everyone else on stage—becomes a bit much to bear. Brown is wonderfully funny as Violet. Perhaps too much so. If her crazy cackle were a bit more ghoulish, Ivy would seem to be stating the obvious, rather than providing background information, when she tells her prodigal sisters their mother is abusive.
A cast of Keegan regulars fills out the farmhouse with clueless cousins, philandering fiancés, and beer-belching uncles. Perhaps one of the above relatives put a damper on your week at the family beach house. Too bad. But just try spending one evening with the Weston family. You’ll be glad you did. —Rebecca J. Ritzel