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VOL. 126 | NO. 60 | Monday, March 28, 2011

Playhouse’s Staging of ‘August’ Sizzles

JONATHAN DEVIN | Special to The Memphis News

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Mattie Fay Aiken, the character played by Ann Marie Hall in Playhouse on the Square’s production of the much-celebrated “August: Osage County” by Tracy Letts, at one point in the play says, “You have to be smart to be complicated.”

Kim Justis Eikner and Irene Crists in “August: Osage County” at Playhouse on the Square.

(Photo: Courtesy of Playhouse on the Square)

But the Letts’ script and Playhouse’s performance manage to be both smart and complicated even during moments of raucous humor and purposeful digs at small-town stereotypes.

“August: Osage County,” which runs at Playhouse through April 3, took the theater world by storm two years ago, winning the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and accolades from coast to coast. It opens with Beverly Weston (Jim Palmer), the patriarch of a small town Oklahoma family, hiring a young Cheyenne girl named Johnna Monevata (Carla Olivar) to watch after his wife, Violet (Irene Crist), who is losing a slow battle with cancer of the mouth.

A couple days later, Beverly disappears without a trace. The three Weston daughters with their male counterparts in tow make their way onto the scene along with Violet’s sister and brother-in-law to help steady the boat as news of Beverly’s whereabouts filters in. Instead, skeletons leap out of the closets faster than frog legs in a well-oiled iron skillet.

A marriage has secretly fallen to adultery. A highly eligible spinster finally makes a match, but chooses the one person she shouldn’t. A would-be romantic turns out to be a fast-talking pervert. And that’s just the beginning.

What makes “August” so masterful is that while it has plenty of gratuitous humor, the play doesn’t rely on that for its overall value. Plenty of other plays have made fun of what happens in the small-town arena and each one is great for laughs, but “August” digs deep at the heart of real issues: escapism, addiction, the narcissism of lust and the refusal to unmake bad decisions. It becomes a methodical essay about the culture of abandonment – the destructiveness of those who leave and the wreckage of those left behind.

The gentry of Memphis theater turned out for the auditions. Irene Crist has played most of the loud women ever written, and to Violet she brings much of that character for which she’s known. As Violet floats from drug-induced lethargy to razor-sharp lucidity, she offers Crist many opportunities to endear herself to the audience, to be vulnerable, and Crist makes jewels of each one. Her performance is quite refreshing.

Michael Gravois usually ends up playing noble protagonists or fun-loving, comedic buffoons. But as Steve Heidebrecht, the fiancé of the youngest Weston daughter, Karen (Laura Stracko), he proves he can play creepy too, with bone-chilling accuracy. His performance raised hairs on the backs of necks across the audience.

Leah Bray Nichols as Ivy, the seemingly responsible middle daughter, fought like a trooper through a rough role that offers the audience little to sympathize with until the very end. But when it’s her moment to step forward and explain herself in a midnight confab with her sisters, she does so with a level of restraint that contrasts nicely to the explosiveness of other scenes.

Olivia Wingate as Jean, the 14-year-old granddaughter of Violet, handles her role with as much maturity – and then some – as one could expect of a high school sophomore. When Jean affronts the very adult issues in the play, suddenly things become harrowingly serious rather than funny, and Wingate held up her end of the play’s depth with strong shoulders.

But the evening belongs to Kim Justis Eikner. As Barbara, the oldest daughter, Eikner never takes her foot off the gas pedal, whether it’s as a quacking, self-righteous wife, an indignant mother, a pacifist sister, or a raging, frenzied daughter out to gain ultimate control.

Director Robert Satterlee (“Frost/Nixon,” “Wit”) is right on the money, keeping the familial chaos organized enough that characters can be seen even in an overly snug set in which some outdoor scenes take place practically in the wings. The set itself, a suburban dollhouse, was beautifully constructed and artfully dressed.

This show may not be for everybody, particularly those who cannot take a lighthearted attitude toward very destructive behaviors, but “August” is a piece of literature that will survive centuries. For the strong of stomach, it’s a must-see.

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