Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize winning 2007 dramedy “August: Osage County” is the final production in Center Stage’s Cornerstone Collection, a 5-year project intending to tackle some of the greatest plays in American literature. Taking place in a small-town Oklahoma farmhouse in the dead of August, the play centers on the Weston clan as they deal with the disappearance of patriarch Beverly. Throughout the evening, secrets are revealed and relationships unravel with terrible consequences. While not for the faint of heart, I can safely say with this impeccable script, these remarkable performances and a flawless creative execution, if you see one show this season from any theatre, make it “August”.
This cast is incredible. There are too many heavy hitters from the local community to count, and they make each character a fully realized person. The star of the evening was Susie Polito, giving a hilarious, gripping, and devastating performance as addled and ailing family matriarch Violet Weston. She found such a sensitive balance between Violet’s feisty humor and her more vulnerable moments when we can see she is slowly losing her mind. Violet and Beverly (William Campbell, a newcomer who gives a game performance in what is perhaps the smallest role of the show) have three daughters who come to support their mother when their father goes missing. Ivy (Ashley Potts) is the long-suffering local sister, who often bears the brunt of her mother’s disappointments; Potts is perfectly dry and disaffected in her role, especially as the tensions involving her relationship reach a boiling point. Barbara (Megan Applegate) is the sharp and sarcastic prodigal daughter who returns as her marriage is crumbling to find her childhood home equally out of control. Applegate is a force onstage, utilizing her natural charisma for some of the biggest laughs of the night as well as some of the most powerful moments. Absentee youngest daughter Karen (Trena Winans) is played with a heartbreakingly frantic energy contrasting with one of the darker storylines.
While these women are arguably the leading roles, the supporting cast is equally exemplary. Personal favorites were Ann Russell-Lutenske and Kurt Miller as Violet’s sister and brother-in-law, respectively. They had a playful and realistic banter and some truly heartbreaking scenes. Chad William Baker as their “loser” son Charles does an excellent job subtly altering his character for the situations he finds himself in - he gives a deep performance without much to go on. Newcomer Anna Stolz is brilliant as Barbara’s rebellious teenage daughter Jean; she hits just the right balance between knowing and naive. Dan Kettler gives a nice performance as Barbara’s estranged husband, Andy Harrington as Karen’s seemingly perfect fiancee is sickeningly believable, and Kelley Gray gives a sensitive portrayal of the local sheriff. Gina Kearly plays an interesting character as home aid Johnna, a Native American woman hired by Beverly before his disappearance who serves as both protagonist, observer, and occasional hero.
I can’t give enough credit to director Adam Gardner-Northrop for his treatment of this script. The show runs a daunting 3 hours and change, and is monologue heavy with dark and dry humor - if mishandled, it could have been a draggy disaster. Instead, the audience was treated to impeccable pacing, creative staging, and heart-wrenching intimate moments. This show is genuinely very funny. His guiding hand was clear in both the flawless casting as well as the massive amount of character work that had gone into the development of this show. Yes there is darkness here, but it’s so well-blended with the humor that we don’t drown in it.
Gardner-Northrop’s use of Evan Lewis’ amazing rotating set was both clever and elegant, and kept the pace cracking. This set is perhaps one of the most remarkable we’ve seen in a community theatre setting. A full three-story house is on stage, rotating to follow seamless scene transitions and allowing glimpses into the daily life of the family at perfect moments. Sometimes having actors on stage can be distracting, but here it only contributed to an almost eerie sense of hyper-realism; as an audience we know we can’t really see through walls or follow people around eavesdropping on their conversations, but “August” might actually be as close as we can get. Lewis and his crew should be extremely proud of this innovative and beautiful work.
Tech is also flawless in this production. All the cues and transitions ran incredibly smoothly thanks to stage manager Kate Fort. Sound by Jeremy Hanson was always crisp and clear, with nice ambient noises that never distracted. Lighting by Marie Andrews was moody and appropriate, and utilized some neat effects when called for. Laurene Franjione has done an excellent job on hair and makeup, and costumes by Barbara Sumi served to further the characters and were never distracting. Props by Jenn Joseph were above and beyond what was called for, and the fight choreography by Keeley Bohn was even-handed and realistic.
All in all, this is a very rare and remarkable show. It isn’t often I find myself without criticism, but for “August” it would seem everything from script to actors to tech to creative team was working in perfect harmony - something that can be as difficult as catching lightning in a bottle. If you can handle strong profanity, an intense but tastefully done sexual assault scene, and some taboo topics, then I know you’ll agree: “August: Osage County” showcases the very best of what community theatre has to offer. The show runs at Midland Center for the Arts from February 16-23; tickets are available at the box office or www.midlandcenter.org.