Friday, March 30, 2012
Thursday Night in East Mesa: "August: Osage County" at Skyline High School
Tonight we were extremely lucky to be in the audience for what was probably the best high school theatrical production we've ever seen, the opening night performance of August: Osage County, presented at Mesa's Skyline High School. Frankly -- and maybe this is because we're jaded New Yorkers -- we thought it was pretty amazing that they'd just let high school students out here put on such a challenging dark comedy filled with the raw material of drug addiction, alcoholism, suicide, infidelity, child molestation and incest.
But the Skyline High School production of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning 2007 play proved to be such a brilliant and riveting match for the material -- as well as mordantly hilarious at moments -- as to do something high school productions almost never do: for long stretches of this seamlessly stripped-down, fast-paced, imaginatively-staged performance, we completely forgot we were watching teenagers.
Directed and designed by Travia L. Steward, August: Osage County featured a first-rate, highly professional cast, led by a devastatingly effective performance by Amber Shepard as the caustic, drug-addicted, force-of-nature matriarch Violet Weston, one of the few iconic roles so far in 21st-century American theater (Entertainment Weekly listed the part as one of the hundred most memorable characters in any medium in the past twenty years.)
The role of Violet won Deanna Dunagan a Tony Award and later Estelle Parsons and Phylicia Rashad gave memorable performances. Here, Shepard combines the fiery fierceness and venom with razor-sharp sarcasm, and when she's addled by the muscle relaxants and other pills she's continuously downing, Violet is both horrifying and worthy of admiration for her sheer perverse will to endure.
She's been compared to a vampire, a rattlesnake, and a snapping turtle, especially when she goes after the members of her extended family who have come to deal with the mysterious disappearance and suicide of the poet paterfamilias Beverly Weston (a world-weary and courtly Parker Olsen), who checks out early after hiring Johnna, a Native American young woman (Jamie Rodriguez, with just the right amount of wary reserve and common sense) who serves as a kind of proxy for the audience watching this family's secrets and battles tumble out in a never-ending month of domestic terror.
Kennedy McMann is a standout as Barbara Fordham, the eldest and strongest of Violet's three ridiculed daughters, the only antagonist capable of matching her mother in viciousness and astringency and also the one most like her. As the daughter who never leaves Pawhuska, Oklahoma -- at least not before the play begins -- Brittani Powell conveys the mousy desperation and barely articulated resentment of Ivy Weston. Their sister Karen, self-deluded enough to be the sunniest of the siblings, is nicely played by Clarissa Johnson, whose sense of fun can't hide her neediness -- or her utter blindness in trusting her slimy businessman fiance Steve (David Novak, oily to the point of repulsiveness).
The world of August: Osage County is most definitely a women's world; the male characters in the play range from mildly innocuous and ineffectual to barely functioning and pathetic. Rounding out the major female roles is a tartly funny Brandi Coats, who as Mattie Fae Aiken, Violet's sister, may seem the most maternal but treats her own son Little Charles (Tony Welcome, an effectively hapless schlemiel who manages to convey that there's still a spark of self-respect in there somewhere) as a cross between a punching bag and a pincushion.
Nobody here wins a prize for the Good Mother, and Jean Fordham (Sabrina Chambers), the pot-smoking 14-year-old daughter of Barbara and her estranged husband Bill (Luis Martinez), is another product of a mother (and father, if fathers do matter at all) whose hypocrisy, lies and secrets leads her to breathtakingly reckless behavior. Oddly, in a production where the actors were teenagers, it felt as though Chambers' real age diverged the most from her adolescent character, probably because this is a family where girls become hard women early -- and the men, in some respect, remain boys.
As Mattie Fae's good-natured, henpecked husband (the two latter words automatically go together here) Charlie Aiken, Caleb Rash is sympathetic but ultimately powerless to make any headway in the face of the female-dominated hurricane winds around him.
Martinez as Bill is also henpecked, but he's managed to pry himself loose, having left Barbara, more or less, for one of the college students he teaches. Even the embodiment of state and police authority, Sheriff Deon Gilbeau, is portrayed by Eric Jackson as sweetly diffident and tentative. God help him if his visits to this household become any more regular.
The multi-tiered set did yeoman service as the actors, without any intermission (the Broadway production, and before that, the Steppenwolf production in Chicago, had two intermissions and ran three hours to the two hours here); it was stunning yet subtle how the characters moved through the set's tiers and nooks, a counterpoint to the tight plotting of the text.
The ensemble here worked as a unit, and they seemed to pull it off flawlessly. There's a kind of self-confidence here that you can't fake, or the audience will smell it ten kilometers away. From beginning to end, we felt were in assured hands, and the numerous plot strands unfurled without even a momentary hesitation.
This is a great play. Three years ago, at the 92nd Y Tribeca, our old friend, theater critic and Broadway columnist Peter Filichia -- we've known him since the mid-70s, though we last "talked" to him as we were on opposite up-and-down escalators at the Columbus Circle subway station in November -- hosted a discussion with Estelle Parsons and other cast members that made the universal appeal of August: Osage County that much more understandable.
At one point in tonight's performance, the woman in front of us turned to the young boy about 11 or 12 sitting next to her, presumably her son, and said wryly, "Nice family story, huh?" (Although there was a warning about some of the language and subject matter possibly being unsuitable for young children, there were a number of kids in the audience, and the ones we observed seemed unfazed by even the most shocking revelations.) The Weston family is dysfunctional with four or five capital D's, but of course all happy families -- and unhappy families -- are dysfunctional in their own ways.
Samuel Johnson famously said that "a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all." We sort of expected August:Osage County at Skyline High School to be like that: remarkable simply for being attempted. We frankly couldn't have imagined to be treated to such an outstanding performance, eliciting not just admiration but astonishment. Everyone associated with this production -- everything from sound to makeup to lighting was highly professional -- should be quite proud.
August: Osage County will be performed again tomorrow night, Friday, March 30, at 7 p.m., at Skyline High School on Crismon Road in Mesa. Tickets were only $6 at the door, although we would have been happy to pay several times that. We're just grateful we found out about it through the poster at the Signal Butte Starbucks.