In August: Osage County, playwright Tracy Letts wears his ambition proudly, opening with the alcoholic poet and twisted patriarch Beverly Weston (Jon Koons) delivering a monologue about T.S. Eliot. It takes a moment before one realizes the context — he’s interviewing a potential housekeeper — and Johnna Monevata (Maria Oliveira) can hardly be expected to make much sense out of his ramblings, or the gift of a book of Eliot’s poetry that he offers her along with the job. Yet that’s exactly what she does, and as we see Johnna reading in her attic room at various points throughout the play, we realize that this is no ordinary domestic drama. As Eliot did in his plays, Letts aims to open up contemporary theater to the primal forces of Greek tragedy, and, unlike his eminent precursor, Letts succeeds. Violet Weston (Susanne Marley), the vicious and profane grandmother at the center of August: Osage County, keeps company not only with such titans of the American stage as Blanche DuBois and Mama Rose; she stands tall alongside Euripides’s Medea. Violet may not kill her children, as Medea did, but there are moments when it’s hard to say that what she does to her family in this play isn’t worse.
With that in mind, consider what else August: Osage County has to offer. There’s harsh language galore, plenty of adult situations, and even some violence. In fact, the only thing missing from this dark carnival may be nudity. That said, there is a whole lot of nakedness here: naked fear, naked shame, naked yearning, and several generous helpings of extra-naked hatred. Sailing through it all alongside their willful, destructive, and drug-addicted mother are the four Weston sisters. There’s oldest sister Mattie Fay Aiken (Leslie Ann Story); she’s a mean one. And there’s Barbara Fordham (Anne Guynn), the smart one who takes charge of the situation when daddy Weston goes missing and everyone returns to their mother’s house. Both of these incredibly juicy, complex roles deserve and, in this production, receive star turns. Guynn in particular does a remarkable job of staying true to Barbara’s impossibly long and perilous story arc. As their husbands, Charlie Aiken and Bill Fordham, David Holmes and Jeff Mills also excel. What a marvelous return to the stage for Holmes, who plays his big scene in Act 3 with terrific passion and intensity.
The newly engaged couple of Karen Weston (Tiffany Story) and Steve Heidebrecht (Todd Goodlett) ought to be a lighter counterpoint to the agony of their elders, but not in this County. Fresh hells open at regular intervals in Osage, and these two are no exception. Jenna Scanlon and Justin Stark are strong as youngest sister Ivy Weston and cousin “Little Charles” Aiken. As the Fordham’s teenage daughter Jean, SBCC student and San Marcos High graduate Devyn Williams steals several scenes, and Sean O’Shea takes a suitably impressive turn as Sheriff Deon Gilbeau.
Behind the striking achievements of every one of these players stand not only Letts’s incredible script but also the sure hand of director Katie Laris. In the director’s note she has included in the show’s program, Laris acknowledges that The Theatre Group at SBCC worked hard to find and stage something that would express its gratitude to the college and the community for the gift of the new Garvin. With this production of August: Osage County, that expression should be met with many evenings full of laughter, tears, and sustained applause.