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Posted on Sat, Mar 30, 2013 : 10:25 a.m.

U-M's 'August: Osage County' explores severe family dysfunction with dark humor

By Jenn McKee

um-august-osage.jpeg

Jacqueline Rose Toboni, Elly Jarvis, and (standing) Regan Moro in U-M's production of "August: Osage County."

photo by Peter Smith Photography | courtesy of the University of Michigan

U-M theater professor John Neville-Andrews is throwing a lot of challenges his students’ way, courtesy of a production of Tracy Letts’ celebrated stage drama, “August: Osage County.”

For the 2008 Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play features characters as old as 69, and as young as 14, with most skewing toward middle age; the epic dark comedy about family dysfunction runs more than three hours; and the show demands a tri-level house set.

“They won’t (play a significantly different age) when they leave, obviously, but it’s good for training,” said Neville-Andrews. “It’s good to understand how mature people walk and talk, and their sensibility. … And (the script) doesn’t stop. You can’t let it stop.”

The play tells the story of the Weston family, who gathers in Oklahoma when the patriarch—an alcoholic poet/academic—disappears. The oldest daughter returns with her estranged husband and 14-year-old, pot-smoking daughter; the spinster middle daughter has stayed in the same town; and the stubbornly sunny youngest daughter arrives with her fiancee in tow.

At the center of them all is Violet, the venomous matriarch, who self-medicates her mouth cancer (and other woes) with pills and nastily cuts down everyone around her.

“I think it’s a very American play,” said Neville-Andrews. “Like ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ and ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night.’ But unlike those plays, this is a modern American play. Everything about is larger than life: the cast size, the set, the length—and it doesn’t let up, from beginning to end.”

A Howard Stark poem called “August: Osage County” is the source of the play’s title, and it begins with this stanza: “Dust hangs heavy on the dull catalpas;/ the cicadas are scraping interminably/ at the heat-thickened air--/ no rain in three weeks, no real breeze all day./ In the dim room,/ the blinds grimly endure the deadly light,/ protecting the machined air,/ as the watchers watch the old lady die.”

PREVIEW

“August: Osage County”

  • Who: University of Michigan department of theatre and drama.
  • What: Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning darkly funny, harrowing play about a far-flung, dysfunctional family that comes back together, in rural Oklahoma, when the patriarch disappears. At the center of the storm is pill-popping, venomous matriarch Violet, who lashes out at her three daughters and everyone else with impunity. Play contains profanity and adult themes.
  • Where: Arthur Miller Theatre, in U-M’s Walgreen Drama Center, 1226 Murfin in Ann Arbor.
  • When: Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m., April 4-14.
  • How much: $26. www.music.umich.edu or 734-764-2538.
“Of course, (the play) is based on Letts’ own family experience,” said Neville-Andrews. “His grandmother became an addict, after his grandfather committed suicide, and she abused the whole family terribly. … Tracy Letts lived a lot of this play.”

In addition to the challenges that “August: Osage County” presents to student actors, Neville-Andrews is also using student designers for his production. Set designer Eli Schlatter, for example, had to take a few cracks at finding a way to fit a three story house set onto the Arthur Miller Theatre’s thrust stage.

Everything seems to be working out, though, and the students are "very excited, and they've really come to appreciate the play,” said Neville-Andrews. “They’ve all read the old plays about families, but they don’t relate to them as much. … This has recognizable characters they might have in their own families, and has arguments and fights they may have witnessed at their own Thanksgiving table, or at a family wedding.”

“ … It’s really a play of raw emotion, and comedy, but there are also these moving moments of tenderness. … We recently had the designers in to watch rehearsal, and they were laughing at various things, and I thought, ‘Thank goodness it’s as funny as thought it was.’”

Jenn McKee is the entertainment digital journalist for AnnArbor.com. Reach her at jennmckee@annarbor.com or 734-623-2546, and follow her on Twitter @jennmckee.