August: Osage County and reasons to be pretty

Dysfunctional relationships abound

If you've ever watched Long Day's Journey Into Night and thought, "I like this, but I wish the family was more dysfunctional," then Tracy Letts's August: Osage County may be your show.

The family matriarch, Violet, is hooked on all manner of pills. The three daughters are bundles of neuroses, born in the Oklahoma heat and honed through decades of passive-aggressive—and just plain aggressive—practice. It's infected their spouses and children. And the patriarch, Beverly, towers above them all, brooding, drunk, and—before the end of the first act—dead.

August: Osage County takes the viewer on an emotional thrill ride, fueled by Letts's script that keeps piling secrets upon secrets, and realized by a stellar cast and production at Park Square Theatre. It's a show that lasts nearly three and a half hours, and doesn't feel long at all. In fact, I left the theater invigorated by it all.

And you think your family has problems: The cast of Osage County
Petronella Ytsma
And you think your family has problems: The cast of Osage County
Anna Sundberg and Jospeh Bombard in reasons to be pretty
Dan Norman
Anna Sundberg and Jospeh Bombard in reasons to be pretty

Details

August: Osage County
Park Square Theatre, 20 W. Seventh Pl., St. Paul
Through October 2; 651.291.7005

Reasons to Be Pretty
Walking Shadow Theatre Company at the Dowling Lab
Through October 2; 612.377.2224

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After Beverly disappears, the family returns to the roost to support their mother. It doesn't feel all that willing, even for Ivy, who has remained in the small town and is closest to her parents. Two of the daughters haven't visited in years, and all arebringing their own secret baggage along. For Barbara, it's the disintegration of her marriage. For Karen, it's the knowledge that her fiancé may not be as good of a catch as she pretends. Even Ivy has a secret she's been keeping from the family. She has become romantically entangled with "Little" Charles, her cousin.

All that threatens to be swept aside by their father's suicide and their mother, who is a pure force of nature. Violet is bitter and angry and is not afraid to let everyone know how she feels. She has spent decades dominating her children and family, with each of them finding their own coping mechanism. She is also in considerable pain from cancer and chemo, which has only added to the bitterness. Much of this plays out over one long evening and night, when layers of true feelings are peeled back, each time unearthing more and more difficult truths for the characters to absorb.

Heavy stuff, but Letts (who won a Pulitzer) mixes the hostility with humor. This isn't the most likeable set of people, but we're dragged into their story quickly and aren't freed until the final blackout.

That also is due to the performances, led by an absolutely triumphant turn from Barbara Kingsley as Violet. Director Leah Cooper described the part as being like a female King Lear, and that's not far from the mark, both in the flaws inherent in the character and in the difficulty it presents for the actor. She needs to run a full gamut of emotions, to dive completely into Violet's violent madness. Kingsley pulls it off and makes us, if not sympathize, at least understand what's hiding in Violet's soul.

The rest of the company does strong work as well, including Carolyn Pool and Kate Eifrig as two of the sisters, and Stephen D'Ambrose as Beverly, who gets only a 15-minute scene before his character disappears, but his outsized presence is felt throughout the show. But it is Virginia Burke as Barbara who gives us the production's second great performance, unleashing a veritable firestorm onstage that reflects the same emotions in Violet. There are moments when it feels as if the two performers are ready to combust, but each retains just enough cool to keep it from being a scene-chewing contest. Instead, these moments are like nuggets of pure theatrical glee, where the various elements—the script, staging, and especially the performances—combine as in alchemy.

NEIL LABUTE is an expert at pushing buttons, and the playwright certainly pushed mine midway through reasons to be pretty, when Steph (Anna Sundberg) rips into her ex, Greg (Joseph Bombard), whose remark about her appearance caused the personal crisis in the first place. Her laundry list of his body issues was so exaggerated that I was ready to write off the play as the product of a pure sexist pig. Something happened, however, on the way to the end of the play. The other guy in the show, Kent (Andrew Sass), brought some much-needed jerk balance to nice-guy Greg, while Carly (Rachel Finch) helped to balance out the female side of the coin as Kent's partner. As it wore on, reasons to be pretty became as much about Greg trying to grow from that moment into someone more mature and adult—looking for a fresh start that might even get him away from the dull, blue-collar, third-shift trap he's created for himself.

That all four actors put in strong, sublime performances helps. Sundberg has it toughest, as Steph seems like a parody of a hot-tempered woman at first. Even in these moments, the actor works to build up our understanding of the character, which then deepens in her later scenes as she hesitantly moves on from Greg. Amy Rummenie directs with a clear, crisp style that never drags, even though this is a two-hour play without intermission.

In the end, I may not be the biggest fan of LaBute's script, but this Walking Shadow production wrings a not just watchable but thoughtful and at times compelling production out of it.

 
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