Hot August nights
A sad, shocking and fun night of contemporary theater
The tagline on the poster for Rogue Theatre’s production of August: Osage County says it all very succinctly: “A play about family, but not a family play.” Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning dark comedy is about one family coming together under one roof, but the amount of emotional bile and jaw-dropping scandal that flows forth once the gang has gathered would surely rot away any sugarplum visions dancing in your children’s heads.
But, with the kiddies nestled snugly at home, the naughty and brave Rogue company unleashed nearly three hours’ worth of riveting and scandalous family soap opera for an opening night (Thursday, Dec. 6) that was one of the most satisfying theater experiences to be had in Chico in recent years. Letts’ smartly written play has been one of the most talked about contemporary works since its debut in Chicago and on Broadway in 2007, and director Joe Hilsee and his cast and crew have met the challenge with a smart and passionate production.
The setup is pretty straightforward: The patriarch of the Weston family of Pawhuska, Okla., Beverly, has gone missing and is feared dead, so the three grown daughters and various other family members all gather at the family homestead during the heat of August to offer support to their mother, Violet.
After a brief setup by the missing Beverly Weston (a cocktail-toting Roger Montalbano), the family gradually enters the home and immediately following brief pleasantries, every scab—old and new—is yanked clean off and the fresh wounds are doused with salt. Feelings are trampled, secrets (sad and shocking secrets) are unearthed, boundaries are crossed, heads are smashed and lots of pills, pot and booze are ingested. Sometimes it’s funny; all the time it’s painful; and just as you think things might be winding down, another revelation arises and another climax swells and the gut-punching ride along the family’s crazy orbit continues.
“Thank god we can’t tell the future, or we’d never get out of bed,” mother Violet says after one particularly bleak reminiscence, breaking the tension for the moment before diving back into the fray.
Mom is definitely the chief instigator in all this, and veteran local player Joyce Henderson is fittingly enormous in the role as the sick and extremely caustic center of the proceedings. At one turn, her character would be nearly catatonic under the influence of prescribed downers, mumbling incoherently and sadly stumbling around. Then, in a snap, she’d uncork an obscene barrage of insults and core-cutting judgment, most often directed at her equally strong-headed daughter, Barbara, played with matched visceral emotional intensity by Rogue mainstay Betty Burns.
Despite its length and near-constant dialogue, the story remained refreshingly engaging throughout. It was kind of like a good (or a bad) book that you can’t set down and keep reading long after you should’ve turned out the light.
While some critics cite the Westons as the “most dysfunctional” family you’ll ever witness, I didn’t necessarily see them as so extreme of an example. For me, the main appeal is that, after a lifetime of repression, what lies beneath the surface is being completely exposed all at once. That’s not something we normally get to see in such clear focus. Exposing what’s led to this family’s downfall also raises questions about what rot might be hidden beneath the facades of all those other homes in the middle of America. The Westons might seem a crazy bunch, but scratch the surface of that drunk nephew or that pill-popping aunt of yours and there’s likely to be a wilder story than you could imagine.
There is certainly a lot to chew on after the fact, but mostly it’s just a blast to experience Letts’ gleefully shocking (and funny) characters and the vivid performances that the cast brought to them. Aside from some not completely warmed-up exchanges in the first couple of scenes, every player was engaged and very naturally inhabited his or her role—from Shawn Galloway’s complex turn as Barbara’s seemingly earnest, but unfaithful husband to Jeremy Votava as the casually creepy fiancé of sister Karen Weston.
For their first show at the new Southside Playhouse, Rogue did a marvelous job of transforming what is basically a big metal warehouse into a very appealing, smartly laid out theater space. Designer Amber Miller (who also plays Karen) and her set-construction team basically built the inside of an authentically dated and dusty two-story house—right down to the console stereo and hide-a-bed couch—inside the warehouse.
It’s probably a good idea to bring an extra sweater to the warehouse at this time of year. Although, due to high demand, Rogue is adding a couple of extra shows to the end of the run, so maybe there will be plenty of extra bodies to warm the place up.