Tracy Letts' 21st century masterpiece August: Osage County is a behemoth of play. Between the drug dependence, incest, perversion, and suicide that plague the eclectic bunch known as the Weston family, there's certainly a lot for one to process during the nearly-three hour marathon that is Letts' Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning monster. For that reason alone, Throughline Theatre Company deserves considerable applause for their decision to take on August during its third season.
What is perhaps most regrettable about having shouldered a play of such gargantuan proportions, however, is that it seems to take almost all of the actors at least a full act to hit their strides in this production taking place in the intimate Grey Box Theatre in Lawrenceville.
It likely comes as no surprise that the actors with the meatiest roles – namely, drug-addicted, cancer-ridden matriarch Violet and frazzled daughter Barbara – give the two most memorable performances of this August. Aside from a highly irregular accent (although the play takes place in Oklahoma, it is never clear from any of the characters' accents where exactly they reside), Patricia Cena Fuchel paints a compelling picture of a weary, broken Violet Weston, a woman with little left to which she can cling for comfort. This fragility is particularly apparent in the show's powerful final moments. As Barbara, Amy Portenlanger shines most brightly in the play's second and third acts, particularly after she seizes control of the Weston household with one of the play's most haunting lines: "I'm running things now!"
Yet another highlight comes in the form of Weston clan's youngest constituent, Jean, as portrayed by Madison Kaye Cofield. At sixteen, Cofield more than holds her own in the company of her more mature counterparts, giving an impressive performance peppered with just the right amount of teenage angst and a striking comic finesse.
At times, the direction feels stilted; many moments in which characters pace back and forth or fidget aimlessly could pack a much more emotional punch if they only seemed to have the tiniest bit more motivation behind their actions. The scenes in which group gatherings take place, however, are unquestionably the most captivating. A mid-play dinner scene at which the entire Weston clan is present and a third act scene in which Barbara fruitlessly (and thus, memorably) attempts to get her mother to eat a heap of catfish, for example, each feel the most polished – and quite accordingly reap the most perceptible audience reactions.
"The combination of high tempers, impaired though processes, and conflicting familiar instincts lead to unique and memorable squabbles and explosions," says Throughline's Artistic Director Liam Macik of August's place in Throughline's 2012 season. "But the honesty of the characters makes it impossible to distance ourselves too far from the madness." Such inability for distance is certainly apparent in this particular August, in great part because of the highly intimate feel that the Grey Box Theatre affords a text that is already indisputably intense by virtue of its subject matter.
When all is said and done, Letts' gaggle of dysfunctional characters will therefore remain on the brain long after the lights come up for good on Throughline's production next Saturday.
Throughline Theatre Company's four-show season focuses on the relationship between past, present, and future by presenting plays from varied time periods and arranging them to highlight their thematic and stylistic similarities.
August: Osage County continues performances July 26th and 27th at 8PM, and July 28th at 1pm and 5:30PM. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for students and seniors, though this play is not suitable for all audiences; parental discretion is advised. Tickets are available at the door or in advance online via Throughline.Showclix.com.