An American Tragedy

Winding Road's heated 'August: Osage County' burns up the stage

Call it a slow burn.

Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning play August: Osage County takes some time to get going. The first act drags a little as the large cast of 13 characters is introduced.

Once we've gotten to know the dysfunctional Weston family, however, the drama starts to pop. The clan's secrets and lies emerge over the course of the second two acts, in a mixture of a dark humor and anguish. By the end, the Winding Road Theater Ensemble production has gone from sleepy to scorching.

The dark comedy takes place during a sweltering Oklahoma summer. It opens as the family's aging, alcoholic father, Beverly (Roger Owen), is forced to hire a young woman, Johnna (China Young), to help care for his wife, Violet (Toni Press-Coffman). Not only is Violet suffering from cancer, she's also a longtime prescription pill addict.

When Beverly suddenly goes missing, the family's three grown daughters— quiet Ivy (Alida Holguin Gunn), bossy Barbara (Maria Caprile) and naïve Karen (Avis Judd)—turn up.

The daughters try to get things under some kind of control, but Beverly's disappearance has created a power void. Violet's vicious temper makes itself keenly felt, and Barbara is goaded by her mother's toxic behavior.

To this already intricate drama, Letts has added subplots about Karen's sleazy fiancé, Barbara's own crumbling marriage and an aunt and uncle with an underachieving son. At first these additional relatives seem like so much white noise—extra eccentric characters to add more grim humor. But toward the end of the play, secrets revealed by this branch of the family have a devastating effect.

In the tradition of dysfunctional American family dramas like Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, the more time the family spends together, the more the situation deteriorates. And the play has a certain Southern gothic quality reminiscent of Tennessee Williams, that other master of American tragedy. The August heat of Oklahoma is stifling, everyone drinks heavily and the mostly naturalistic drama veers in places toward a more poetic, lyrical style.

Press-Coffman is darkly delightful as the addicted matriarch Violet. She realistically plays someone under the influence—a more difficult task than it may seem. It's easy for an actor to simply "play the drugs," distracting from the character with over-the-top antics. Press-Coffman's behavior is instead uneasy and surreal, evoking the disturbingly off feeling of someone whose worldview is mediated by pharmaceuticals.

Yet despite the mist of drugs, Violet is capable of shrewd observation and devastating attacks. In a long dinner scene that plays like a symphony of dysfunction, Violet launches verbal sally after sally at her family members. Finally, her nastiness reaches such a pitch that Barbara physically attacks her mother.

Caprile digs her teeth into the meaty role of Barbara. Despite all the doom and gloom, the play is often very funny—admittedly, it's humor of the "laughter in the dark" variety. The situations are often so wretched that the only thing to do is laugh. Barbara has the wittiest lines, and Caprile has a delicious deadpan.

August: Osage County was acclaimed on Broadway, winning the Pulitzer for drama in 2008. But it debuted in Chicago, in a 2007 production by the famous ensemble theater group Steppenwolf, to which Letts belongs. In Backstage magazine, Letts wrote that he created the multicharacter play because of his "deliberate desire" to write for an acting ensemble.

Winding Road's production marks the first staging of Osage in Arizona, and company director Glen Coffman successfully handles the challenge of an ambitious ensemble piece.

Together with Terry Erbe, Coffman designed a set without any artificial walls, keeping the small Beowulf stage as open and spacious as possible. The effect is that of an eerie, wall-less dollhouse. Even so, the set manages to suggest the interior of the Westons' Oklahoma house—study, living room, dining room and bedroom—while giving the large cast room to move.

There's a fine scene in Act 2 where all 13 actors are onstage, spread throughout the rooms, talking at the same time. The ensemble handles the overlapping conversations with ease; it's like watching a live-action version of a Robert Altman film.

There's something ultimately old-fashioned about Osage despite its contemporary setting. Its long, three-act structure is one rarely seen in today's drama; the play wears its influences proudly, readily evoking O'Neill and Williams.

Letts has taken the genre and made it his own, creating a bevy of twisted characters that will not soon leave your memory. And Winding Road Theater Ensemble brings this demanding ensemble piece to fiery life.