The Arden Theatre Company opens its season with Tracey Letts’ August: Osage County in a production that ranks among the best in the company’s 23-year history.
The best American play since Tony Kushner’s sprawling two-part epic Angels in America (which the Wilma Theater is mounting later this season) August specifically concerns itself with the Weston family of Pawhuska, Okla. However while the action takes place entirely in and around the family’s rambling house (grandly realized by scenic designer Dan Conway as a skewed, drafty old mansion filled with regret and long-kept family secrets) Letts intends the Weston’s to be representative of a larger American family, which like the Oklahoma clan is (in Letts’ estimation at least) in considerable peril of collapse.
The story begins with the family patriarch Beverly (David Howey) interviewing the Weston’s new Native American housekeeper Johnna (Elena Araoz). “My wife takes pills and I drink,” Beverly says explaining the gist of his marital situation. It’s useful information for both Johnna and the audience, but it barely suggests the extraordinary level of dysfunction we encounter when Beverly’s and his difficult wife Violet’s (Carla Belver) three adult daughters arrive home in the wake of an unexpected family tragedy.
At nearly three and a half hours, Letts develops his play with painstaking precision, and the first act is reserved for introducing the many characters. Each is distinct. None is especially happy. The eldest daughter, Barbara (Grace Gonglewski), is like her mother; strong, opinionated, and married to an academic (Eric Hissom is spectacular as Barbara’s philandering husband Bill). A precocious 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Dylan Gelula), is the sole product of their fitful union. The middle daughter, Ivy (Corinna Burns in the best performance of her career) is the only Weston sister who still lives in the town. Only in her mid forties she appears far older, a result of the constant emotional abuse she has endured at the hands of their perpetually disappointed mother. The youngest and seemingly happiest of the three sisters is Karen (Kathryn Petersen), who arrives with her mysterious fiancé Steve (a wonderfully slimy Anthony Lawton). Completing the family reunion is Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Mary Martello). Remarkably like her sister minus the pills, Mattie Fae’s life consists of badgering her husband, Charlie (a terrific Paul L. Nolan), and belittling their understandably fragile son, Little Charles (Charlie DelMarcelle in a sensitive performance).
“I don’t plan on spending the rest of my days looking at what used to be,” exclaims Violet, during one of her many outbreaks of extreme exasperation. Yet examining (and in some instances reliving) the past is exactly what this family members do over the course of the play’s three meticulously crafted acts. For the Westons, the past informs everything about the present, a connection that Letts suggests is true not only for this family, but for America as well. Later in the play’s tumultuous and chilling third act, as her marriage and family disintegrate around her, Barbara laments that “dissipation is much worse than cataclysm.” However, it’s not just Barbara’s marriage that has been corrupted by indulgence; the entire family is falling apart.
Both an actor and a playwright, in August Letts creates characters that allow the actors to display the full range of their capabilities and director Terrence J. Nolen’s esteemed cast takes full advantage of the opportunity. Taking an ensemble approach to emphasize the sense of family the cast is uniformly excellent. Gonglewski, Belver and Hissom are all extraordinary, and Martello is nothing short of astounding as the tragically unhappy Mattie Fae.
Winner of the Tony Award for best play as well as the Pulitzer Prize for drama, August is a rare achievement. Letts’ course humor, shocking plot reversals and routine observation that all children are destined to become their parents may diminish the play in the eyes of some, but for sheer dramatic impact the Arden’s production of August: Osage County is about as thrilling as Philly theater gets.
Through Oct. 30. $29-$48. Arden Theatre Company’s F. Otto Haas Stage, 40 N. Second St. 215.922.1122. ardentheatre.org