The action of the play centers on the Weston family home in the plains of Oklahoma. The three daughters - Barbara, Ivy and Karen (Danielle Cochrane, Annie Keris and Megan Barbour) - flock to their homestead and the side of their ailing mother Violet (Lavinia Hart) when their father Beverly (Alec Barbour) goes missing. With the whole family crammed into the hot house together, truth after ugly truth wriggles its way out from the shadows into the light, and each in their turn is forced to confront their family demons.
Not to be too effusive, but James R. Kuhl and his cast knock this one out of the park. The play is long (three solid acts), but the tempo is sparkling and vivid, making the time positively fly. Across the board, the cast is too young for their roles (except, of course, the 14-year-old daughter), but they are exceedingly well cast and, also across the board, they rise to the challenge. For any family drama to work, the family has to feel like a family, and that is achieved in spades by the Hilberry company*. Letts's script creates not a setting, but a home, and Kuhl fills that home with a living, breathing family that trips and trudges through the poetic cacophony with skill. Head of the MFA Acting program Lavinia Hart as matriarch Violet is a force of nature - but you're never sure which face this Mother Nature is going to show. Whether lulling us in like a sweet spring zephyr, or plowing through her family like an Oklahoma twister, Hart lives the torment, ire and manipulation with uncommon grace and humanity. Danielle Cochrane as daughter/chief antagonist Barbara steps up to Hart's torrential level and holds her own, navigating the waters of strength, damage, and desperation beautifully. As Barbara's estranged husband Bill, Miles Boucher effectively tickles the moral ambiguity of his character while still finding the dedicated stability of father and husband. And undergraduate Egla Kishta is great as their in-a-hurry-to-grow-up daughter Jean, painting a truthful portrait of the thin and winding line between childhood and adulthood. Annie Keris does a lovely job as the put-upon, close-to-home daughter Ivy, elegantly playing the sharp twinges of disapproval and the private moments of hope. Megan Barbour's bright bubbly energy as daughter Karen slices through the accustomed acrimony of the rest of her family, but her nuanced performance also shows the cracks in this veneer. And Brandon Grantz delivers a funny and unsettling performance as her fiancé Steve, creating an engaging, sleazy, mid-life-crisis on two legs. Bevin Bell-Hall is outrageous as Violet's sister Mattie Fae. Swinging from boisterous to banshee, she is every bit her sister's sibling. Brandy Joe Plambeck is fantastic as her husband Charlie, playing the reluctant patriarch with charm, humor, and an unexpected well of power and family devotion. And David Sterritt is sweet and unassuming as their beaten down son Little Charles, making his search for belonging and acceptance in his own family poignant and relatable. Sarah Hawkins Moan as the live-in maid Johnna brings a quiet strength and matter-of-factness that sets her distinctly outside of the Weston family, and yet tethers her to it with a gossamer thread of sincere responsibility. Topher Alan Payne as Sheriff Gilbeau is even more of an outsider than Moan, which makes his intrusions into the Weston world all the more palpable, uncomfortable, and necessary for him, for them, and for us. And Alec Barbour's all-too-brief appearance as patriarch Beverly Weston anchors the play with the accumulated weight of decades in this house, with these people (particularly this woman), with these expectations and these vices. Right away his slow, steady rhythm establishes the stickiness of the heat, the sweetness of the bourbon, and the sting of a long, long life - all of which propel us into rest of the performance.
The production team for August: Osage County is every bit as on their game as are the actors. Leazah Behrens's sprawling set fills the Hilberry space with utility, care, and creativity. With the bones of the house showing, the very foundation of the family is laid out for us to see. Every little nook and cranny is filled, and alive. Heather DeFauw's delicate lighting design dapples the stage with the contrasting warmth of an Oklahoma summer, and the chill of long-buried family ghosts. She also works well with the action on stage, deftly guiding our focus, while allowing us the freedom to explore as well. Clare Hungate-Hawk's costume design is simple and strong, illustrating and illuminating each character with careful and clear detail. And Leah McCall's sound design provides gorgeous and appropriate underscoring for the turbulent world of the play.
Yeah, I know you can rent August: Osage County. You can stay home in your PJs watching Meryl and Julia duke it out over the Oscar neither of them got. But I will tell you in no uncertain terms, the version of Letts's beautiful, hilarious, devastating play currently on stage at the Hilberry brings this world to life in a way no DVD could hope to. So make the time to join those Hilberry folks in Oklahoma while you can. Because life may be long, but their run is all too short.
August: Osage County by Tracy Letts (Director: James R. Kuhl) continues at The Hilberry Theatre through May 10. Tickets range from $10-$25. For more information, visit www.cfpca.wayne.edu/theatreanddance/
*I could take this as a moment to get on a soapbox about the tragedy of the death of the resident company in America... but I'll try to refrain.