“August: Osage County” at the Phoenix Theatre

Everyone told me to bring tissues to see “August: Osage County” by Tracy Letts at the Phoenix Theatre, but you know what? I hardly cried at all.

I did, however, keep saying “Holy smokes…Holy SMOKES!” under my breath.  I also hugged my knees a lot and often barked with laughter.  When I left the theatre I felt as if I had been through a hurricane.  I was dismayed by the damage, but I also felt light and free and grateful because I had survived.

I’m laughing about it again, remembering that feeling.

I saw this intense show opening weekend and I tried, unsuccessfully for reasons that are not worth discussing now, to see it again the second weekend.  I think I will try again to see it before it closes.  It is such a good show!  I.e., it is an exceptionally rich, well-done theatre piece that brings to life a brilliantly layered, exquisitely insightful story about something all human beings have in common: family.

What “August: Osage County” Is About

A father named Beverly Weston hires a Native American woman to care for his ill wife, Violet.  Then he disappears.  Violet’s extended family – her sister, her three adult daughters, and all of their families – gather to help figure out what happened to Beverly and then deal with it.  All kinds of long-festering family issues that have never been discussed bubble up under the pressures of crisis and proximity.

The show is funny and dramatic but it never becomes a situation comedy or a melodrama.  It also never becomes preachy or self-help-y.  It respects the complexity and essentialness of families, even at their worst.  Watching this show, you somehow feel both a) respect for the fact that families are pressure cookers for human development over generations – i.e., a gift – and b) sympathy for the individuals that are being cooked, especially those that don’t make it out.

In the lobby after the show, I heard several people say, “Thank God my family was nothing like that!” I felt that way myself.  Others said, “My mother/sister/brother/father/etc. is just like the one in this show.”  I think whether you see your own family in the Westons or not, there is something universal in this show that resonates with everyone on some level.

In any case, it offers a lot to talk about afterwards.  It is “about” many things.

That Family!

If you are a regular reader of Indy Theatre Habit, you know that I almost always admire director Bryan Fonseca’s work, but he nailed this one especially well.  He chose a great script, he cast a great mix of experienced, fulltime, professional, destination actors from around Indiana plus a promising newcomer or two, and he did his shamanic (fatherly?) thing in creating and holding the space for them to take their sacred journeys as actors together. The actors’ and director’s combined power in this piece makes the Phoenix Theatre a “power spot” for the audience as well.

I am only going to name the cast because every time I try to write something about the individuals, it feels as if I am robbing the characters – and their relationships – of their complexity.  Just as in a real family, everyone plays more than one role (e.g., mother AND wife), and everyone is in more than one relationship.

So this one time, will you please just believe me that the acting is extraordinarily good and go experience it for yourself?

The cast (in alphabetical order):

  • Gail Bray (Ivy Weston)
  • Erin Cohenour (Johnna Monevata)
  • Ken Farrell (Beverly Weston)
  • Charles Goad (Charles Aiken)
  • Abby Hart (Jean Fordham)
  • Martha Jacobs (Violet Weston)
  • Ronn Johnstone (Sheriff Deon Bilbeau)
  • Diane Kondrat (Barbara Fordham)
  • Richard S. Rand (Steve Heidebrecht)
  • Matthew Roland (Little Charles Aiken)
  • Bill Simmons (Bill Fordham)
  • Gayle Steigerwald (Mattie Fae Aiken)
  • Diane Timmerman (Karen Weston)

A Few Other Things I Loved About the Show

All of the design elements work together in a powerful way, too. For example:

Bernie Killian designed a “wow” set for the family’s house.  It has several physical levels and a degree of set decoration that conveys the deep level of “dug-in-ness” of this family’s emotional patterns.  You really believe that people live here and that they have lived here for years.

Michael Jackson’s nimble lighting design includes a clever “TV” that delighted me with its ghostly shadows.

Tim Brickley’s sound design includes beautiful original (I think) banjo (I think) interludes that express the sometimes wistful quality of family life, adding yet another layer to the emotional mix on stage.

Ashley Kiefer’s costumes are subtly just right for each character’s personality; I can imagine each character choosing what he or she wears, and at first glance, each is fairly “every day.”  However, the costumes also blend together artistically to say something additional about the whole family.  The costume design visually supports that most of these people are related to each other and hints at their relationships.  I am not explaining this very well, but anyway, I was impressed by the costume design.

My program says that Richard S. Rand did the fight choreography.  I was impressed by that, too, although I didn’t think about it during the show.  I just ducked.

I’m sure the show’s excellence is also due to the fact that David Santangelo and Chelsey Wood are the assistant stage managers, Nolan Brokamp was the technical director, Ashley Kiefer did props, David Graham was the production intern, and Cody Grady is the light and sound operator.

“Must See”

Lou Harry of the Indianapolis Business Journal called this show a “must see.”  I try not to use that expression but if I were going to use it, I would use it for the Phoenix Theatre’s production of “August: Osage County,” a Pulitzer/Tony-award winner by Tracy Letts. It runs one more weekend at the Phoenix Theatre.  Call 317-635-7529 for tickets.

‘See you at the theatres…

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com and www.twitter.com/IndyTheatre

(All photos for this post were taken by Zach Rosing and provided by the Phoenix Theatre; used with permission. Roll your mouse over each photo to see the actors’ names.)

3/5/12 P.S. – When I read Melissa Hall’s review on her Stage Write blog, it reminded me that while I would call this a “must see” for just about any adult, I would not suggest it for kids.  Thanks, Melissa!

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