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August: Osage County
by Tracy Letts
Directed by Wayne Salomon
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
April 14, 2017

Cast of August: Osage County
Photo by John Lamb

St. Louis Actors’ Studio

August:Osage County at St. Louis Actors’ Studio runs about three and a half hours and serves up some intense and even brutal situations in the life of an Oklahoma family. It may seem like a difficult play to watch, and in ways it is, but with the superb,Pulitzer Prize-wining script, excellent direction and stellar cast, it’s a fascinating, riveting experience that’s sure to hold the audience’s attention from start to stunning finish.

This is a large-cast play, filling STLAS’s small stage at the Gaslight Theatre and bringing out all the sharpness, drama and caustic wit of Tracy Letts’s script. The action centers around Violet Weston (Kari Ely), the sharp-tongued, drug-addicted matriarch, whose poet husband, Beverly (Larry Dell) disappears, bringing the family together and revealing the dynamics and relationships between the various members, including the Westons’ three daughters–Barbara (Meghan Baker), the “responsible” eldest; Ivy (Emily Baker), who still lives nearby and is berated by her mother for not being able to find a lasting romantic relations; and Karen (Rachel Fenton), the youngest who has spent a lot of time in Florida out of touch with the family, only to return at a crisis point with smarmy fiance’ Steve (Drew Battles) in tow. It’s a complicated family, including Violet’s cheerful but pushy sister Mattie Fae (Kim Furlow), her affable husband Charlie (William Roth), and socially awkward son Little Charles (Stephen Peirick), as well as Barbara’s seemingly “perfect” husband, Bill (David Wassilak) and surly teenage daughter Jean (Bridgette Bassa). There’s also Johnna (Wendy Renee Farmer), a young Cheyenne woman who has been hired by Bev against Violet’s wishes to be a housekeeper and caretaker for the family, and who Violet frequently badmouths and berates. The family and interpersonal dynamic is the source of much of the drama and biting humor here, with various revelations and ensuing emotional outbursts as part of the territory. It’s a richly portrayed portrait of a family of “big” personalities that don’t come across as caricatures and, while the situations and characters may be extreme at times, there’s something about the various family dynamics that provides much with which viewers can relate. Even if we don’t have relatives exactly like this, there are things here that most families will be able to recognize to one degree or another.

The language, rhythm and pace of this script is expertly represented here in director Wayne Salomon’s “master class” level of a production. The cast is positively stellar, led by the remarkably complex and multi-layered performance of Ely as Violet. While Violet is not a likable character, Ely does an admirable job of making her fascinating, and even sympathetic at times. Her mood swings, her deep-seated resentment of the life she has led and even the members of her own family, and a dual sense of desperation and resignation are brought to the stage in this incredible portrayal. Ely’s is well-matched by the rest of the cast, as well, especially by Meghan Baker as the “responsible” Barbara whose own life isn’t what it seems and shows her own degree of desperation as life continues to spin out of control; and also by Emily Baker as the sometimes neglected, sometimes bullied middle child Ivy, whose quest for personal happiness and fulfillment takes on its own level of desperation. There are also strong performances from Fenton as the seemingly clueless Karen, Bassa as the conflicted and rebellious Jean, Peirick as the much-maligned (by his own mother) Little Charles, and Roth as Charlie, who is even-keeled until his wife–the also excellent Furlow–reveals his breaking point. Farmer is also memorable as Johnna, who admirably manages to help mitigate the chaos around her. Battles, as the outgoing and decidedly creepy Steve, and Dell as the well-meaning but overwhelmed Bev also turn in excellent performances. This is an excellent ensemble, giving well-pitched performances that do justice to the challenging and sometimes explosive script.

Also impressive are the production values here. The multi-level set by Patrick Huber is something of a wonder, representing the large, well-appointed Weston house with remarkably vivid detail on the Gaslight Theatre’s small stage. Carla Landis Evans’s excellent costumes and props also contribute well to the overall atmosphere of this play, as does Dalton Robinson’s effective lighting. The staging of such a large-cast play on such a small stage could easily seem cluttered, but here, everyone fits, and the small stage actually works well for helping to achieve a claustrophobic effect when that is needed, especially in the revelatory family scenes.

This is a wondrous production. It’s uncomfortable to watch at times, and it runs three and a half hours, but it is never, ever boring. This lucid, intense script is brought to life in such a challenging and stunning way. It’s a truly great production, not to be missed.

Emily Baker, Meghan Baker, Kari Ely
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting August: Osage County at the Gaslight Theatre until April 30, 2017.

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