September 30, 2011

KC Stage

A long day’s journey into Oklahoma
by Greg Boyle

Kansas City Rep opens its new season with a 2008 Tony and Pulitzer prize-winning play August: Osage County. Since there is an Osage county in both Missouri and Kansas, I wondered whether the play was going to take place here.  No luck. This is a play about residents of Osage County Oklahoma, though actually, it is about living on the Great Plains, so it still counts for locals.

The Weston family forms the foundation for this story — mom and pop, three sisters and their assorted husbands, fiancés and children; an aunt, uncle and cousin round out the crew. The only outsiders allowed into the picture include the local sheriff and a young housekeeper. The structure of the tale revolves around the sudden death of the patriarch, and the subsequent gathering for the funeral. As expected in a setup like this, everyone has secrets, some brand new, some decades old, and by the end of the evening, all will be heard.

Playwright Tracy Letts stood on the shoulders of titans when he wrote this script. Its structure and characters bring to mind Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill. There are three bickering sisters, as in King Lear; the matriarch is a soul-stealing harpy as in every one of Williams’ plays, and alcoholism and fear of failure keep the patriarch-poet from venturing into the world where it might discover the empty bowl of his creative juices, as in O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night.

Luckily, Letts has a much better sense of humor than O’Neill so the play never drags. In spite of the depressing sound of the above synopsis, this play has the audience laughing over and over at the script’s dark humor, very often expressed in rough language. During this epic-length saga, (running time 3 and one-half hours) a variety of unexpected topics arise to the audience’s delight. For instance, how does one refer to one’s mother’s private parts; and why does everyone say the “Greatest Generation” is so special; and what’s the deal with veganism, anyway? These don’t represent grand themes but they continually pique the audience’s interest and funny bones.

The central issue of the play concerns the deals we make with each other and ourselves in order to get along. These accommodations allow us to keep the wheels turning but after a period of time their daily accumulating weight can reach a tipping point that winds up bringing down the whole house of cards. Everyone does it to one degree or another, with very few exceptions. Whether the deals are tacit or explicit, a price will eventually be paid. Addictions of all stripes, abusive behavior, some forms of physical or mental illness, all are manifestations of the repression we impose upon ourselves. This is what happens to the Westons, and we get front row seats.

All the actors in the production turn in fine performances. Merle Moores as Violet, mother and widow, superbly devastates everyone in sight with her all-seeing eye and acid tongue. Her profound narcissism makes everyone into a target, regardless of how hard they try to appease her. Manon Halliburton as daughter Ivy slumps around, her posture revealing without words what living in close proximity to this harridan has done to her self-esteem.

As so often happens, an especially strong female in the family leads to the males being significantly less so. Gary Neal Johnson as the uncle, Craig Benton as the son-in-law, David Fritts as the fiancé, and Rusty Sneary as the cousin ably demonstrate how men can become weak or conniving in the face of overwhelming and abusive female power.

The scenic design by Donald Eastman is stalwart. He has created a complete house, with four downstairs rooms, a staircase and three upstairs rooms — all fully functional spaces where action takes place. That doesn’t even include the back porch and outside areas. Every room looks entirely realistic as though you could move in tomorrow.

This play isn’t about abnormal people. Everyone knows some of these characters. Putting them all in one family might be a bit of a stretch, but it amplifies the play’s effect and makes an evening of watching them that much more intense and pleasurable.

August: Osage County runs at Kansas City Rep’s Spencer Theatre on UMKC campus through Oct. 9. For tickets, call the box office at 816-235-2700, or visit www.KCRep.org.

Greg Boyle may be reached at gbboyle@kc.rr.com.