Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Up the Road — August: Osage County in Austin

Posted By on Wed, May 4, 2011 at 3:57 PM

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Last weekend, I tricked a carload of San Antonians into seeing August: Osage County at the Zach Scott Theatre in Austin—I accomplished this by cannily neglecting to mention that the play was three-and-a-half hours long. (Details were finally squeezed out of me as we passed New Braunfels; the subsequent mutiny was squelched without significant loss of life.) As it turned out, I needn’t have worried: Osage County remains a rollicking entertainment, as Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts takes the basic form of the family drama, and invests it with a jaw-dropping level of comedic dysfunction and (eventually) pathos. The set up: Beverly Weston, the patriarch of a sprawling Oklahoma clan, mysteriously disappears, leaving his vitriolic wife (the potty-mouthed drug addict Violet) to fend for herself. Bev’s disappearance precipitates the eventual return of three unhappy daughters—echoes of Chekhov’s Three Sisters are doubtless deliberate—along with variously dysfunctional in-laws, dysfunctional grandchildren, and dysfunctional fiancés. (Only an enigmatic Native American housekeeper, a sort of guardian genius, resists the curse of this oh-so-postcolonial house.) The evening’s plot is propelled by a number of twists, and I don’t wish to spoil things; but one should expect a searing revelation every fifteen minutes or so. A hilarious second-act dinner scene is, I think, an instant classic of the American theater.

But the question remains: is this a Great American Play, or a pastiche of a dozen other Great American Plays? Indeed, there are obvious allusions to O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Sam Shepherd’s Buried Child, along with glances at T. S. Eliot, Edward Albee, Christopher Durang—and the list goes on. (The play even veers into pop culture territory: a cynical invocation of the squeaky-clean Brady Bunch is a particularly nice touch.) Director Dave Steakley often exaggerates the comic elements, sometimes to fine effect, but occasionally to the production’s detriment (both the sleazy fiancé and the cocksure Sheriff are limned in the broadest of strokes). The two lead actresses—Lana Dieterich as the vile matriarch and Lauren Lane as the vile-matriarch-in-waiting—are both top-notch, delivering their scabrous lines with ease. I wish especially to sing the praises of designer Michael Raiford, whose quasi-naturalistic set disintegrates into a stifling wall of wheat, punctuated by boarded windows. When, in the last act, the windows are finally flung open, we gaze not into the fairytale blue of an Oklahoman sky, but at simply more wheat: an unassailable, inescapable, infinite recursion of wheat. It’s the perfect metaphor for the doomed Weston family, trapped even by their dreams, or, perhaps, especially by their dreams.

So: August: Osage County plays for three more weeks in Austin and I swear it’s worth the trip, including any necessary deception of friends and/or similar subterfuge. Consider heading north and West(on).

--Thomas "Wheaties" Jenkins, Current theatre critic.

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