Best Hell Ever
A family comes together and falls apart in Tracy Letts’ unmissable hit August: Osage County at Paper Wing.
Thursday, August 16, 2012
Forget what you know about Paper Wing Theatre: their dark, gothic tendencies, their guerilla tactics, their sweet tooth for pop culture. With their production of Tracy Letts’ 2007 play August: Osage County, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2008 and reams of other accolades, Paper Wing evolves. That they scored Monterey County’s premiere of Letts’ groundbreaking play is the first sign that this is different; the next is the set, a multi-tiered interior of a family home built with economical spaciousness.
The play opens as somberly as an elegy. Beverly Weston (Richard Mueller), a once-prominent poet and now a worn-down patriarch of an Oklahoma family’s empty house, sits in his study drinking while offering a philosophical soliloquy to Johnna Monevata (Norma Barocio), a young Cheyenne woman he’s going to hire to help his sick wife. Mueller delivers the reflective lines with a gentlemanly Southern lilt, painting the old man in shades of kindness, regret, irony and exhaustion, like a Civil War general talking to an underling in a tent about a battle he will lose.
“My wife takes pills and I drink,” he tells her without shame. “That’s the bargain we’ve struck. One of the bargains. Just one paragraph of our marriage contract. Cruel covenant.”
Then his doped-up wife Violet (Deanna Mckinstry-Edwards), who we’ve been watching unsteadily descend the staircase, intrudes to investigate and agitate him as if to remind him they’re still at war. “Why don’t you go back to bed, sweetheart?” he implores her.
She explodes in rage, then gets overly sweet, and stumbles away. In the next scene Beverly will have disappeared for five days, which brings the rest of the family back home, in the midst of a hot August, to console Violet, who’s eating pills like candy and near breakdown.
That family is a big cast, directed nimbly across the entire house. None of them are expendable, so here they all are: Mattie Fae Aiken (Andrea McDonald) is Violet’s sister, perpetually negative, scowling, a down-home woman with a pinched face, while Mattie Fae’s husband Charles (Jay DeVine) is a likable country boy who rolls with his wife’s meanness and dotes on their hapless 37-year-old son, “Little Charles” (Eric N. Johnson).
Violet’s three 40-something-year-old daughters are Barbara Fordham (Linda Dale), the eldest and a writer, with her estranged college professor husband Bill (Patrick McEvoy) and their sullen, sarcastic 14-year-old daughter Jean (Terri Dobbins); shy, shrinking Ivy (Penelope Morgan) who never untied her mother’s apron strings; and Karen (Heidi Sullivan), deluded and desperate for companionship, who brings her no-account fiance Steve (Jody Gilmore).
And that’s the family, core and extended, that the audience gets to know and identify with uncomfortably well in this three-and-a-half-hour play that moves deliberately to where it’s going: right to the hurts and histories, the estrangements and bonds.
While everyone is arriving at the house to figure out what happened to the missing father, Mattie Fae needles her husband, but it’s a funny kind of long-married harassment. It isn’t until Violet – Vi to her family – and her eldest daughter Barbara get past the warm welcomes and start digging into each other that the play’s lethal teeth are bared.
“Your father,” Violet tells her. “You broke his heart when you moved away.”
“That is wildly unfair,” Barbara says.
“You know you were Beverly’s favorite. Don’t pretend you don’t know that.”
“I’d prefer to think my parents loved all their children equally.”
“I’m sure you’d prefer to think Santy Clause brought you presents at Christmas, too, but it just isn’t so.”
It gets better by getting worse, as more secrets and baggage get unpacked literally and figuratively. It happens organically, through realistic dialogue that forms and severs connections, spilling blood that carries the weight of years. This is a family at a rough time, taking it out on each other, and it is scary, exhilarating and funny.
A central scene is a big, formal dinner, with everyone present and Violet on the attack, dishing out cruelty that Letts has seasoned with wicked humor. She asks Karen’s fiance Steve how many times he’s been married; three, he admits.
“You should pretty much have it down by now, then,” she says. She turns on everybody. It’s a beautifully written scene of ugliness and control, but Letts assuages the blows with punchlines.
The set is a marvel of a century-old house that’s been lived in and then abandoned, with structural problems in the foundation, Violet says. No kidding.
“Who was the asshole who saw this flat, hot nothing and planted a flag?” Barbara says to her husband about the surrounding Oklahoma plains. “We fucked over the Indians for this?”
The direction, from Koly McBride, is as sure as a chess player’s, nearly invisible. The acting is stellar all around, rich with accents and speech patterns and understanding of character. But Equity actress Mckinstry-Edwards as Violet is a force, like a surly and wily Bette Davis in high gear, cigarettes and eyes burning, a dagger-like finger slicing, the druggy but dictatorial matriarch.
The script is a complex and awesome work of literature that doesn’t look or feel like literature. It feels like a transcription. It might be the best thing that Tracy Letts has done (a film adaptation is coming, starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, and the film adaptation of Letts’ violent Killer Joe is out now) and the play might be the best thing Paper Wing has done. It can take you somewhere familiar and deep, a rare alignment of the stars that make such a journey a gift. One you don’t forget.
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY shows 8pm Friday and Saturday, through Sept. 1, at Paper Wing Theatre, 320 Hoffman Ave., Monterey. $22/senior, student, military; $25/general. 905-5684, www.paperwing.com