Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Family disintegrates in Pulitzer-winning "August: Osage County"


The cast features (foreground, from left) Carley Herlihy, Allison F. Rich, (back row, from left) L. Duarte, Michael Ray Wisely and Terrance Smith. (Dave Lepori photo) 

If there were a contest for most dysfunctional American family, the one in Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County” would win.

Presented by San Jose Stage Company, the play itself is a winner, having garnered the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for drama and five Tony Awards, including best play.

Baring the family’s secrets, the play goes on a grueling journey through addiction, suicide, incest and infidelity, among others. It’s definitely for adults only.

It’s set in the Weston home outside a small town in Oklahoma. As it opens, Beverly Weston (Randall King), a retired teacher and poet, is engaged in a long, drunken monologue about T.S. Eliot.

His audience is Johnna Monevata (L. Duarte), an American Indian woman he is hiring as a housekeeper.

His wife, Violet (Judith Miller), then stumbles in. Suffering from mouth cancer but continuing to smoke, she’s addicted to the prescription drugs she has hidden throughout the house.

In the next scene, Beverly is missing, and some family members have assembled to try to find him.

Once his body is discovered in a nearby lake, presumably because he committed suicide, the rest of the family arrives.

They include Mattie Fae Aiken (Marie Shell), Violet’s sister, and her husband,  Charles Aiken (Tim Kniffin); and their son, Little Charles (Matthew Kropschot).

The Westons’ eldest daughter, Barbara Fordham (Allison F. Rich), is there with her husband, Bill (Michael Ray Wisely), and their 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Carley Herlihy). Barbara and Bill have separated because he’s having an affair with one of his students, but they’re trying to pretend everything is OK.

Another Weston daughter, Karen (Tanya Marie), is an airhead joined by her sleazy fiancé, Steve (Joshua Hollister).

Both Barbara and Karen have moved out of Oklahoma, but their unmarried sister, 44-year-old Ivy (Elena Wright), has stuck around.

As the play continues, the family disintegrates step by step. Secrets and old grievances are revealed, but there are a few humorous moments.

Completing the cast is Sheriff Deon Gilbeau (Terrance Smith), who delivers the news about Beverly.

Miller delivers a tour de force performance as Violet rails against those who would try to control her. And while she may seem addled, she has known about some secrets for years.

Even though Beverly has the opening scene only, King is noteworthy.

Rich also is outstanding as Barbara tries to keep everything together, but over time she becomes more like her mother. The transformation is subtle, often conveyed through facial expressions or body language.

In the end, everyone has left except Johnna, who tries to comfort the confused and self-pitying Violet with the penultimate words from Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”: “This is the way the world ends.” Left unsaid are the final words: “Not with a bang but a whimper.”

Director Kenneth Kelleher lets a few diatribes go over the top, but overall the entire cast is terrific. Johnny Moreno choreographed the fight scenes.

The costumes by Madeline Berger and lighting by Maurice Vercoutere complement the production. Steve Schoenbeck’s sound design leaves some lines difficult to hear, especially in some early scenes.

Running about two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission, “August: Osage County” will continue through April 24 at San Jose Stage Company, 490 S. First St., San Jose.

For tickets and information, visit https://thestage.org/tickets or call (408) 283-7142.