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Center Stage: Rep’s ensemble exquisite in ‘August: Osage County’

By Staff | Mar 16, 2011

The Florida Repertory Theatre’s latest premiere of Tracy Lett’s Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award winning drama “August: Osage County” shows us exactly why attending live theater is so rewarding and stimulating. The exquisite ensemble playing of the Florida Rep’s cast at last week’s opening thoroughly proved why The Wall Street Journal’s acclaimed drama critic Terry Teachout named “Florida Rep One of America’s Top Repertory Companies.”

The play is one of those brave theatrical fixtures, the American family drama in three acts, rife with the heady mixture of over-the-top, yet intimate, cruelties only relatives can and do heap on each other. “August: Osage County” is an overpowering, deeply moving, family tragicomedy, a kind of Oklahoma-located combination of O’Niell’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” if you will. In spite of these parallels, the play doesn’t buckle under this weight; instead it is a deeply, highly entertaining work, consistently rich, raw and intense, filled with viciousness as well as vicious wit.

Hailed as “the first American classic of the 21st Century,” “August: Osage County” is a gripping tale of the Weston family, a large extended family that comes together at their Oklahoma homestead after the disappearance of the family patriarch. This strained familial crisis causes unspoken truths and secrets to be revealed, as well as contend with what to do about the matriarch, Violet, a prescription pill-popping addict, a deeply unsettled woman caught in the eye of this storm.

Set in present-day Oklahoma, the play opens with a prologue when the patriarch, poet and academic, Beverly Weston (Ray McDavitt) reveals a few basic facts (“My wife takes pills and I drink,” he tells Ashley, played by Johanna Monevata, a Cheyenne woman he hires as a housekeeper) — after which he promptly disappears, causing the couple’s three middle-aged daughters to return to the family homestead with husbands or boyfriends in tow to comfort their mother in her time of need, while trying to get to the bottom of Dad’s disappearance. All three offspring in this quest exhibit clear indications of past, present or future emotional damage.

The mousey Ivy (Stacy Scotte) lives nearby and resents the responsibility she’s had to take for watching over the horror of her parents’ later years. She’s never married, although she’s carrying on a secret love affair with her mousy first cousin, belittlingly known to the family as Little Charles (very effectively played by John Patrick Driscoll).

Barbara (Jan Wikstrom) is the oldest and strongest of the daughters (wrapped in savage humor), returns from Colorado with her currently estranged husband Bill (Chris Clavelli) along with their nubile, pot- smoking, teen daughter Jean (Rep intern Megan Carr) .

The youngest, also single, Weston girl, Karen (Rachel Buttram), arrives from Florida spouting a lot of self-help platitudes about her recently reformed love life, accompanied by her slightly sleazy businessman fiancé Steve (Greg Longenhagen)

Rounding out the family gathering is matriarch Violet’s abrasive sister Mattie Fae Aiken (a howlingly funny Carrie Lund), her hen-pecked husband Charlie (effectively played by Mark Chambers), their son Little Charles Aiken, and the disappearance-investigating Sheriff, Deon Gilbeau (David Sitler).

The important role of the matriarch, the razor-tongued Violet, belongs to Sara Morsey who inhabits her character totally, and is alarmingly convincing as a drug addict; in the first act she seems much of the time to be a dithery, shattered old lady whose mumbled words are almost incomprehensible. But beware — this is when she is most dangerous. Morsey slowly revels Violet’s iron grasp on what matters to her now; her gleaming, cunning eyes display a hard-as-nails vitality that will steamroll over one and all who cross her.

Wikstrom is simply towering in the all-important role of Barbara, the family anchor. Scotte can convincingly turn on a dime from the mousey, put upon, staying-close-to-home daughter to a tower of strength when it comes to affirming her man, Little Charles. Burttram breathes life into her many-faceted character, Karen, the youngest of the Weston sisters. Matching Burttram in this blow-by-blow emotional byplay is Longenhagen’s sleazy take on Karen’s fiancé, Steve. Clavelli turns in a wonderfully compassionate performance as Barbara’s estranged husband, Bill. Other outstanding ensemble performances are given by Lund, Chambers, Ray McDavitt (the patriarch), Ashley Price (the housekeeper) and David Sitler (the sheriff). Each and every actor in this amazing cast deserves recognition for giving depth as well as biting humor to their characters.

In a play with a large cast, plenty of secondary dramas unravel, and these are defined with flawless clarity by Artistic Producing Director Robert Caccioppo. This incredible play is perfectly mounted to express the stark, sun-baked atmosphere of the Oklahoma plains with scenic designs by Jim Hunter, costume designs by Roberta Malcolm, along with the all-important lighting plot by David M. Upton.

Even though “August: Osage County” is a fully loaded, heavily plotted saga of an Oklahoma clan in a state of spectacular meltdown, this drama is one of the most exciting plays to hit Fort Myers in a while. This is live theater at its very best, performed by the incomparable Florida Rep’s ensemble cast and beautifully and sensitively directed by Caccioppo. Be sure and phone the box office now at 332-4488, since “August: Osage County” only plays till March 27th and tickets, I suspect, will be going fast.

åWhen you phone remind ’em Marsha sent you.