August: Osage County, Philadelphia

Written by:
Lewis Whittington
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‘August: Osage County’

By Tracy Letts
Directed by Terrence J. Nolen
Arden Theatre, Philadelphia
Through Oct. 30, 2011

The Arden Theatre’s set design for Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County” is on a smaller scale than the Broadway production, but still a three-story wall-less home of the Weston family, where the drama and some low-brow laughs loom just as large. Beverly Weston has gone missing and his ill wife Violet calls back her three adult daughters and their spouses to help her cope. The somber reunion sparks all the diss in the dysfunctional clan to come out. Letts throws in everything, including the kitchen sink—warring spouses, drug addiction, end-of-life issues, American Dream metaphors and even T.S. Eliot.

Arden director Terrence J. Nolen, a specialist in streamlining complex scripts, has a lot to work with here and he succeeds with large chunks of it, but he can’t clear all of the theatrical tumbleweeds Letts has blowing around. The rhetorical excesses are so frustrating because they are next to lots of lean, mean American playwriting. And without doubt, Letts has a great ear for naturalized dialogue, and he bravely balances character study with colliding storylines. But, the culmination, spread over three acts, is cluttered as Letts hedges his bets on creaky plot devices.

Still, the audience at the weekend performance I attended didn’t mind a bit: they were completely involved with plot, character and performance. For starters, how many shows can boast two tour-de-force performances? Carla Belver’s monstrous and heartbreaking matriarch Violet, who can clean everyone’s clock before they know it, even as she spirals into a cyclone of drug abuse, grief and bitterness. Belver’s is an operatic performance but not at the expense of any subtlety—there was as much truth as she silently creaked around the halls silently as there was in her vitriol toward her adult children.

Violet is faced with a crisis that brings her whole life into blurred focus; meanwhile she careens into a prescription-drug bender, overmedicating to escape her life. David Howey as her husband, the poet and alcoholic bore, does wonders with the opening soliloquy, much improving the national touring production that played here last year.

Grace Gonglewski is equally powerful as Barbara, the bitter daughter who tries to beat back her mother’s guilt trips, even as she uses some of the same tactics on her philandering husband, Bill. Gonglewski gives a finely calibrated performance that holds together, riding through such claptrap as the end of a funeral dinner that devolves into Benny Hill burlesque. Eric Hissom, as Bill, brings a wounded intensity, but their scenes together here are one-note marriage brawls erupting like outtakes from an Albee play, overwritten and overwrought. Even Gonglewski couldn’t appropriate all of the shrillness.

Mary Martello, as Violet’s meddlesome sister Mattie Fae who can keep a secret but acts out with hostility, is flashy, and with Paul L. Nolan as her husband, Charles, they have understated chemistry. Mattie can’t help attacking her son Charles, a 37-year-old hard-luck guy, who is having a clandestine affair with his cousin Ivy (Charlie DelMarcelle and Corrina Burns in quietly tender performances). Lower Merion High School student Dylan Gelula, in her debut theater role, has a marvelous naturalness as Jean, the stoned, disaffected teen daughter of a divorcing couple. There are several strong performances among this supporting cast; credit again Nolen, who gives the actors breathing room with pacing Letts’ avalanche of exposition, not to mention some plain hokum.

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