If saying her name three times would magically make her appear in every show from here on out, consider that an incantation.
It’s tempting to review “August: Osage County,” the searing production of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer-winning dark comic-drama at the University of Alabama Department of Theatre and Dance, simply by saying “Dianne Teague is in it.” What else do you need to know?
But that would be unfair to director Stacy Alley, who’s tempered this three-hour-long melange down to a raw, terrorizing edge that can cut deceptively paper-thin or slice right through the torso. She’s found and brought out, with cast and crew, the hilarity and hysteria, the punches and punchlines, the peaks of hope and the journey-to-the-center-of-the earth pits.
It’d be a slight to fail to note the other excellent work fleshing out this often-harrowing, often-gut-busting excursion into the heart of family darkness: Ian Andersen, Cindy Spitko, David Derringer, William Green, Blake Williams, Caroline Ficken, Emma Rose Wagner, Katharina Fox, Ross Birdsong, Ann Marie Meeker and Kyle Chesney standing up and standing on stage with Teague, an accomplishment in itself. This cast rubs together, pulls apart, fractures, splatters, stretches, pops, clusters; they strengthen each other, tear one another down, step up, walk away, refuse to engage, jump in in all the wrong places and ways …
In other words, it’s any post-Tolstoy unhappy family, in that each of Letts’ characters — with the possible exception of Johnna, who as the new houseworker hire remains a largely silent witness to the maelstrom — is the star of his or her own complex life. Each presence ripples such that you can visualize the person’s past and project their future. Such is Letts’ gift, a stark realism that refuses pat answers, clever fixes or hug-it-out teary redemption. This is not a classic holiday tale in which you’ll struggle through the forest and come out the other side feeling warm and fuzzy about how everyone resolved issues. It’s too real, too honest for that, and for that, more deeply moving, richly satisfying.
On the other hand, it could serve a practical function: You might feel better about your own family after spending three hours with the Westons, in the sprawling three-story home at Pawhuska, Oklahoma.
Family patriarch Beverly (Green), a melancholic, possibly alcoholic poet, at the top hires Johnna (Meeker), a Cheyenne woman who’s suffered misfortunes, and needs steady work. She’s asked to run everything: cook, clean, and keep an eye on Beverly’s wife Violet (Teague), who’s not only suffering mouth cancer, but a raging addiction to drugs that ease the pain and by-products of chemotherapy. It’s clear from Green’s deliberate, pause-filled, mournful delivery that something more than a job is at stake; it’s evident this family will soon need a rock-solid Johnna.
Alerted to an emergency best left to the evolving plot, the extended family flocks home: eldest daughter Barbara (Spitko), the one who most fears, with reason, becoming her mother, while wishing she could be more like her father; middle daughter Ivy (Ficken), dutiful so long she’s bursting to break out with a troubling secret; and feckless baby girl Karen (Wagner), who twitters so incessantly about finally finding happiness, like the flip side of a smokescreen — a sunscreen? — she blinds herself to the gathering dark.
Barbara’s husband, Bill (Derringer), an academic, resembles a younger Beverly, an alkaline balance to estrogen overdrive, though, he’s as twisted inside as any of them. Violet’s sister Mattie Fay (Fox), seems the saner, if chattery and wildlly inappropriate (and hilarious), balance to her fiery, often unhinged sibling. The sister acts — Violet and Mattie Fay; Barbara, Ivy and Karen — feel remarkably real despite differences: There’s overlap, a believable amount of connective tissue in manner, voice, style, passion, but to each his own inanity or insanity.
Baby of the group Jean (McGuire), Bill and Barbara’s daughter, shows again the matryoshka doll affect, not all on the surface … or on the surface under that; or under that. Charlie (Andersen), husband to Mattie Fay, and their boy Little Charles (Birdsong) remarkably balance some of the biggest laughs — around the table, Charlie’s the tension-breaker, the goof, the go-to clown, the person least likely to be reviled throughout the entire family — with heartbreaking moments of tenderness and revelation. The purity of the love captured between Andersen and Birdsong is palpable, brilliant, lasering rays of hope through the murk. Karen’s fiance Steve (Williams) might as well have entered slathered in butter down a greased slope, though again as throughout this ensemble, the actor keeps something back so the revealed slime still shocks. Somewhat like Johnna, the Sheriff (Chesney) steps up mostly as counter to the frenzy, adding an endearing awkwardness, a needed light.
Even when off stage, Violet colors all. She’s the epicenter, both eye and storm, the gravitational singularity through which all multifarious family tales must pass, or failing to, feel inexorably sucked in. Teague is a treasure and a terror, a demon, a delight, a transparently flawed and fascinating, fully-realized human. It is a titanic performance, changeable as the weather: Beaming day, bleak unending dark, ripped with electric discharges that could burn your whole life down. UA grad student Spitko squares off with Teague, thoroughly up to the challenge, toe to toe and breaking heart to broken heart. It’s a wonder a stick of furniture was left unbroken, walls still standing.
With that said, the greatness of “August: Osage County” can be measured not just by its bangs and whimpers, but through its explosive laughs — the men’s perfectly timed oh-no reactions to mom-sister-daughter furies; the timely and unexpected intervention of Johnna to a tense moment; Teague’s wry delivery, Fox’s charmingly weird excursions, Spitko’s resigned yet not beaten counters, Wagner’s effervescence, Andersen’s unpredictability — and, without easy answers or “awww” moments, its raw expressions of love, of giving, of leaning on others and finding momentary, partial comfort there.
It’s built on a nimble, jammed cutaway house stage by Cliff Simon, a smart work of using-every-inch art, lit with warmth and depth by Matt Reynolds, and costumed, in the kind of easy living, this-is-how-people-are completeness that risks being overlooked, by Ryan Rankin.
Yes, it’s three hours — with two well-placed intermissions — and yes it’s tough, unforgiving stuff, but art, as opposed to pure entertainment, doesn’t always harmonize with the furniture. Real art is not for the faint of heart; nor is “August: Osage County.”