August: Osage County is a both intensely funny and brutal play by Tracy Letts. It won the Tony Award for Best Play as well as the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play centers around the Weston family, who are brought together when the family patriarch disappears one balmy day in August. While holed up on the family estate, old secrets create fresh wounds that change the familial dynamics forever.
There are a couple standouts within the large cast of the Weston family. Violet Weston, played by Debbie Lake, is a pill-popping matriarch whose past addiction comes roaring back with the arrival of her entire family. Lake had some of the strongest moments in the show, displaying Violet’s descent into addiction with long, angry monologues and scenery chewing. She had the most effective use of vocal and physical levels, but could sometimes get caught up in her performance and would need to take a moment or two to get back on track with the story. The oldest sister, Barbara, played by Sarah Greene almost equally matched Lake in the amount of emotional moments she conveyed, but had a tendency to yell her lines and would easily get stuck within that one vocal choice for long stretches of time. A few more volume and emotional levels would even out her performance. The cast as a whole did well with a wordy script, creating a few interesting moments and stage pictures with so many people scattered across the stage.
Director Judy Harper had a large cast to work with and crafted interesting relationships with a few of them that developed and sometimes crashed and burned within the plot. August is a long play, topping off at over three hours with two intermissions. Pacing could be tightened within a few of the more intense moments. Dialogue is written to overlap in several parts of the play, while some characters are the “focus” of a certain section, life continues to move and buzz around the rest of the house. Harper staged these moments quite well in the first act, but chose in the second act to focus on certain scenes while other parts of the house were frozen in action. This was a rather jarring choice after the busyness of act one and slowed the action down quite a bit. It took some work for the cast to really get into the groove of act two, which is one very long scene full of exits and entrances.
The designers of this production (set design by Michael Wisniewski, lights by David Newsham, costumes by Yolandie Hamilton and Katy Hamilton, and sound by Timothy Barnes and Tyler Leonard) had a difficult task ahead of them, creating the world of a play involving a large cast in a relatively small space. The house the Westons live in is three stories, with the majority of the action taking place in the living room, dining room, and study on the first floor. The second story is represented by a small landing and hallway, and the third is the smallest space, representing the attic where a few characters congregate and talk. The biggest struggle with the set was the small space it took up. Many scenes involved characters within one “room” discussing private matters away from the ears of the others. However, with all three rooms taking up the same space on the stage floor, characters in these different rooms would be mere feet from each other, making it difficult to figure out who could hear what, and who was in what room. Lighting played a part in this as well, with lights in certain spots spilling into the other areas, making it more confusing what each area was supposed to represent. While using a few practical lamps scattered around the stage that characters could turn off and on, Newsham chose to light the scenes, a lot of which took place in the evening and at night, with almost full light.
Costumes were hit or miss throughout. Act two brought out a few interesting choices, allowing us to understand a few of the characters better through their clothing choices - establishing youngest sister, Karen, as someone who doesn’t fit in with the rest of her family - but confusing a few others, with Barbara and Violet dressed very similar to one another. Reference is also made several times to the August heat and the house’s lack of air conditioning, with most of these references being made by characters wearing long pants, long sleeves, and sweaters.
Underscoring was used by the sound designers a few times to give a cinematic feel to important moments in the plot. However, levels and mixing of both the recorded and live sounds will hopefully improve in subsequent performances. Technically, this is a very difficult show and there were some strong choices throughout that served the story, but more attention could’ve been paid to the smaller details.
August: Osage County is a sweeping play that takes the audience in and won’t let them free for the entirety of its runtime. The audience at opening night followed right along, though it should be said that the language and content of this script is mature in nature and might not be some attendees’ cup of tea. At the end of the day, theatre should be something that can affect us all in different ways and this is definitely one of those plays.
August: Osage County runs at Bay City Players February 2nd and 3rd, and February 8th-10th, with Friday and Saturday shows at 7:30 PM and Sunday shows at 3:00 PM. Tickets are available online or from the box office Monday-Friday, 9am-1pm and during the run of the show: either in person or by phone at 989-893-5555.