August: Osage County: EAT THE FISH, BITCH!

estelle parsons
It seems as though lately Toronto’s stages are alive with world-class alcoholics. After entering Martha’s Dystopia in Nightwood Theatre’s production of That Face, I soon found myself in the equally gin sodden madhouse of Violet Weston in the Mirvish/ Steppenwolf Theatre production of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County which closes Sunday, November 15th, 2009 at the Canon Theatre.
This 2008 Tony and Pulitzer Award winning play is an epic one and the performances in this particular production are absolutely exceptional. Tracy Letts tells the story of the estranged Weston family who find themselves in the midst of an intense and unexpected reunion when the patriarch of the family, Beverly, ominously disappears. The play chronicles a series of revelations between the family members and bring issues of alcoholism, drug addiction, incest, pedophilia, betrayal, denial, resentment and bitter disappointment to the very brink as Violet Weston, the matriarch, continues to twist and manipulate her family members’ lives in order to hold onto the position of power she clings to so stubbornly. The result is fantastically explosive theatre with a caustic comic edge. Letts’ language is at times filled with rich poignancy beautifully articulated, and it evolves with the plot, filling with urgency and becoming increasingly terse and hilariously vulgar. Words hold significant power in the world of the Westons as they become the weapons with which the family members attack each other, defend themselves and establish hierarchy within the household.
I watched this play in complete fascination and was entirely captivated through its three and a half hours. I found specific moments rose to dizzingly extraordinary heights which are rare, even amongst the best of plays. There was a scene at the dinner table where Letts transitioned brilliantly from the hysterical to the horrific and back again, and a heartbreaking scene between the three Weston daughters, Barbara, Ivy and Karen, which first constructed the sisters’ warm connection with one another and then promptly and fervently annihilated it. Despite the brilliance, however, I found that it was my mind and not my heart that responded most ardently to Letts’ story. Although the play was, for all intents and purposes, a tragic one, I did not have the strong emotional reaction that I was expecting. Instead, I found myself in deep reflection about how familial love so often manifests itself in such a perverse way.
The cast of August: Osage County is fiercely talented and they give this play all its momentum and its eternal spark. Jon DeVries is haunting in his short performance as the tormented Beverly Weston and Amy Warren provides much needed comedy as the delusional, chipper youngest Weston daughter, Karen. Angelica Torn creates Ivy Weston with a mixture of fragile and disconcerting irrationality and becomes more and more gripping as the play progresses. Emily Kinney gives a fantastic performance as fourteen-year-old Jean, a teenager trying desperately to stay cool with the fact that her world is crashing down around her.
All the reviews of this play that I have read have, most deservedly, raved about Estelle Parsons’ performance as Violet; however, very few critics have adequately given praise to Shannon Cochran, whose portrayal of the eldest Weston daughter, Barbara, is absolutely exceptional. Cochran’s Barbara is a richly complex character; a fiercely strong woman who is at once admirable, despicable, likable, and pitiful. Cochran’s momentum is gripping as she builds gradually to the moment where she stops the show cold at the end of Act II. It is a powerful performance and one that I felt fortunate to have had the opportunity to see. As Barbara is Violet’s most worthy adversary, Estelle Parsons’ performance makes an explosive complement to Cochran’s. Estelle Parsons really has it all in this play. She has the most delightful physical humor as she, in a drug-induced stupor, slides headlong down the stairs and then rocks brilliantly on her heels in attempt to get the cigarette in her mouth lit. Her Violet is monstrously formidable and she commands the stage with her acrid strength as equally as she does in forsaken weakness. This performance is as epic as Letts’ play. With Violet, one gets the sense that Parsons plays every imaginable emotion on her roller coaster of Valium, Vicodin, Percodan, Percocet and Xanax and as she switches from one to the next, whether she is clawing magnificently to the top or plummeting toward despair, the result is always perfection.
Dysfunction is taken to extremes in the Weston’s Osage County, and yet at its essence this play is an exploration of a dichotomy that has plagued the human experience for generations. When we seek to escape the pain of a cruel world, what strain does our chosen coping mechanism have on the ones we love? How can we keep ourselves from contributing to the cruelty of the world when we are so disillusioned, broken and have “the plains”?

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