U-M stages captivating and darkly funny 'August: Osage County'
photo by Peter Smith Photography | courtesy of the University of Michigan
An old saying claims “You can’t go home again,” but the damaged family at the center of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play “August: Osage County” - now being staged by the University of Michigan department of theatre and drama - knows all too well that that’s a lie.
Indeed, the three middle-aged Weston sisters understand that not only does going back to your childhood home suddenly thrust you back into the mindset of your childhood, and your “role” within a family; the journey also inevitably dredges up painful wounds long buried.
But the sisters have no choice when their alcoholic, poetry professor father, Beverly (Matthew Provenza), goes missing for five days. His wife, pill-popping Violet (Elly Jarvis), who suffers from mouth cancer, verbally abuses her three daughters as they reunite in Oklahoma: oldest daughter Barbara (Jacqueline Rose Toboni), whose relationship with both her husband Bill (Philip Maxwell) and her 14 year old, pot-smoking daughter Jean (Meredith Starkman) is strained; middle daughter Ivy (Regan Moro), who stayed in town, unmarried; and youngest, willfully sunny daughter Karen (Elana Gantman), who brings her slimey fiancee Steve (Ben Reitemeier) in tow from Miami.
Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Emily Shimskey), meanwhile, picks on her husband Charlie (Neal Kelley) and her seemingly shiftless son Little Charles (Graham Techler), and the Native American housekeeper Beverly hired before his disappearance (Johnna, played by Samantha Rehr) quietly works to keep the family fed and safe.
This was my second go-round with “August,” since I saw the touring production a few years ago, and I may have been even more absorbed, from start to finish (clocking in at a little more than three hours), this time around.
Admittedly, this may be a function of numerous things working in tandem - I’m at a slightly different time of my life; the mind can focus on subtle flourishes when you’re not trying to take the story in for the first time; etc. - but no matter how you slice it, director John Neville-Andrews and his gutsy student cast have made this dark comedy sing with full voice.
I say “gutsy” partly because “August” isn’t a natural choice for a college production. The characters range in age from 14 to 69, with none of them falling particularly close to the students’ ages. And yes, the visual dissonance of this is a little jarring at first. But just as your ear acclimates to Shakespeare’s English after a few minutes, you grow comfortable in the illusion and willingly go along for the ride after the production's first couple of scenes.
“Gutsy” also describes the abandon with which the students approach these rich, complex roles. Standouts include Kelley and Shimskey, as an aging couple whose primary disagreement centers on how much respect should be afforded to their son; Moro, as the shy, dutiful daughter who's ready to move on; Rehr, who provides a strong, good-hearted presence amidst the chaos of the Weston house (and whose true, pre-ordained role becomes apparent only at play’s end); and Toboni, charismatically anchoring the show as “August”’s pivotal character, since Barbara must inevitably face the ways she resembles her venomous mother, and decide whether she has the power to deflect what appears to be her destiny.
The ensemble as a whole is solid, and Neville-Andrews masterfully balances the production’s moments of dry, laugh-out-loud wit and searing pain by way of a crisp pace that never sacrifices clarity.
Much credit also goes to scenic designer Eli Schlatter, who impressively managed to solve the puzzle of how depict a three story house in an intimate, thrust stage theater (and since the dilapidated house plays a key role, as a kind of character in its own right, the stakes were high). And though I questioned how “put together” Violet looked when Beverly was missing, I otherwise appreciated costume designer Leslie Bates’ choices; Charles Malott, meanwhile, designed the show’s (good, but occasionally self-conscious) lighting, and Henry Reynolds designed the sound.
The things most likely to stay with you from “August,” however, are the small, painfully true details of family interaction, and the idea that either in spite of, or because of, the unbreakable nature of blood ties, we are sometimes the worst, nastiest version of ourselves when we return to the family nest.
"August: Osage County" continues through April 14. Tickets are available online.