Review of August: Osage County at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

    August: Osage County is one of the few 21st century straight plays to have received a national tour. It came to the Fox Theatre in March 2010. That visit may be the reason why it has taken so long for the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis to take up Tracy Letts’ explosive drama. The Rep’s superb cast shows why the play won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award and many other prizes.

    The action takes place in the Weston family’s home, which is 60 miles northwest of Tulsa, Oklahoma. In the prologue, the 69-year-old patriarch, Beverly Westin, is hiring Johnna Monevata, a Cheyenne woman, to be a live-in caretaker for his wife, Violet. She has oral cancer and is addicted to pills. Violet is reeling from their influence when she makes her first appearance.

    Ellen McLaughlin’s portrayal of Violet’s addiction is wrenching to watch. McLaughlin (the original Angel in Angels in America) is equally brilliant later, when Violet’s orneriness is unchecked by the drugs. The doyen of St. Louis actors, Joneal Joplin, adds to his long list of memorable performances by giving the right amount of bitterness and world-weariness to Beverly, who was once a renowned poet.

    Beverly does not return after the prologue. He has been missing for five days at the start of Act One. The family assembles at the Weston home, ostensibly to support Violet, but the operative mode of this family is seldom supportive. The family members and their destructive interactions are vividly portrayed by the following performers.

    • Astrid Van Wieren as Mattie Fae Aiken, Violet’s younger sister.
    • Alan Knoll as Mattie’s husband, Charlie.
    • Sean Wiberg as Mattie and Charlie’s feckless son, Little Charles.
    • Henny Russell as Barbara Fordham, the eldest Weston daughter
    • Michael James Reed as Barbara’s husband, Bill, a college professor. They have not announced that Bill has left Barbara for one of his students.
    • Isa Venere as Barbara and Bill’s rebellious, 14-year-old daughter, Jean.
    • Claire Karpen as Ivy, the middle Weston daughter. She is a librarian at a local college who must endure severe criticism from her mother.
    • Yvonne Woods as Karen, the youngest Weston daughter, who is too enamored of her new fiancé to see who he really is.
    • Brian Slaten as the philandering fiancé, Steve Heidebrecht.

    David Wassilak is Deon Gilbeau, the softspoken sheriff who went with Barbara on a disastrous prom date three decades earlier. As Johnna, Shyla Lefner shows the compliance of someone for whom keeping her job is essential. She puts self-interest aside, however, and springs into action when she witnesses an intolerable instance of abuse.

    The first act, understandably, has the most exposition. The second act is the liveliest and funniest. The third act builds to confrontations of staggering power. In the midst of all the fireworks, Knoll creates a striking moment when Charlie calmly delivers an ultimatum to his wife.

    Regina Garcia’s imposing, multistory scenic design alerts us to take a flexible view of how the Weston’s rambling country house is laid out. If the layout were completely literal, we would not see exterior siding around the interior door nearest the front door. This part of the set and others have multiple purposes.

    The script specifies three main playing areas on the first floor that are separated by entryways. The dining room is stage right, the living room is downstage center, and the study is stage left. Presumably to make the rooms fit better on a thrust stage, The Rep’s set places the study behind and slightly above the living room and has no entryways to define the paths between the front rooms. Little Charles should have a path that draws more attention to him at the key point when he is carrying his mother’s casserole from the kitchen to the dinner table.

    The right atmosphere for the production is established by Sonia Álvarez’ costumes, Xavier Pierce’s lighting, Amanda Werre’s sound, Avi Amon’s musical compositions, Alison Hora’s wigs, and Michael Pierce’s fight direction. The scene of abuse interrupted by Johnna benefits from Rachel Tibbetts and Will Bonfiglio’s intimacy direction. Amelia Acosta Powell directed.

    The outstanding performances in August: Osage County can be seen at The Rep through April 7.

    —Gerry Kowarsky

    Photo by Jon Gitchoff
    The cast and ensemble of
    August: Osage County.