“August: Osage County” by Oklahoma-born playwright/screenwriter/actor Tracy Letts finally has made it to McHenry County.
If you want to see a Tony Award-winning three-act, three-hour play with 90 percent drama, 10 percent humor, plot twists and characters whose flaws are painfully exposed, head to McHenry County College’s Black Box Theatre this month. This ensemble piece features some standout performances and offers a rare chance for local adults to see a heavy drama.
In the play, the August temperatures faced by the main characters, an extremely dysfunctional extended family in Osage County, Oklahoma, are stifling, especially since the family’s matriarch “doesn’t believe” in air conditioning. But tempers flare up just as much as the temperatures – the emotions on stage are intense, verbal arguments and actual fights are always ready to break out, and few characters can keep their cool when inside the pressure-cooker of a family reunion.
It’s hard to avoid spoilers about the plot but let me try. Beverly Weston (played by Frank Gaughan) and his wife, Violet (Shannon Mayhall), have addictions and/or illnesses Beverly isn’t shy about sharing in the opening scene a conversation with Johnna (Fallon Knaak), a young Native American woman he wants to hire to stay with them and help around the house. As he explains, “She takes pills. I drink.” He also says his wife is suffering from mouth cancer.
In the next scene, it’s weeks later and we’re told Beverly has been missing for five days, long enough that all of the Weston family members have come to Violet’s home to provide comfort.
The group includes: Violet’s daughters, Barbara (Tricia Miller Hewson), Ivy (Lauryn Lugo) and Karen (April Noel); Barbara’s professor husband, Bill (Tim Vance), and 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Lydia Johnson); Karen’s not-so-perfect fiancé, Steve (Rikki Lee Travolta); Violet’s younger sister, Mattie Fae (Doreen Dawson); Mattie Fae’s husband, Charlie (Christopher Plotts) and son, “Little Charles” (Brendan Gaughan). The sheriff, (Ian Philpot), a longtime family friend who dated Barbara many years earlier, is investigating the disappearance.
The long-simmering tensions between family members are palpable. Barbara and Bill arrive from Colorado with suitcases and significant baggage of a different kind. Ivy has a man in her life but doesn’t want to talk about the relationship. Mattie Fae constantly is belittling her son and occasionally doing the same to her husband. Violet is an expert at being confrontational.
Director Jay Geller has elicited realistic performances out of his ensemble cast, but Mayhall and Hewson pull out all the stops in showing a mother and daughter whose strained relationship affects not only each other but virtually everyone else in their orbit. Both actresses dive into their complicated, passionate, strong characters, daring the audience to hate, but understand, their actions and reactions.
Considerable praise also is due for technical directors Susanne Powell and Kent Wilson and set designer Thomas Kesling. They’ve given the actors an impressive set: a large two-story home with a dining room, living room, attic bedroom, staircase, study and outside entrance. When multiple conversations are happening on stage simultaneously, the set gives Geller a lot of flexibility in blocking the action. Even before the show began, the set gave an excellent first impression.
I had two minor issues with the opening night performance: First, it was difficult to hear the opening announcement and some of the dialogue in the first scene, and, second, while the lighting design subtly changed to illuminate parts of the stage where key conversations or actions were occurring, the lighting of one Act III scene brightened silent characters while dimming an important discussion between Violet and her daughters.
Ten years ago this month, “August: Osage County” won five Tony Awards, including Best Play, Best Actress and Best Direction. In late 2013, a movie based on the play premiered, starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, Ewan McGregor and more, earning Oscar nominations for Streep and Roberts. For this production, the MCC audience opening night couldn’t give out any awards or nominations, but it gave something just as worthwhile to the cast and staff: a well-deserved standing ovation. The plot may take place in the heat of Oklahoma, but this serious drama is a lot better than OK.
• Paul Lockwood is a past president of TownSquare Players (TSP) and an occasional community theater actor, appearing in more than 30 plays, musicals and revues since he and his wife moved to Woodstock in 2001. Recent shows include “On Golden Pond,” “9 to 5: The Musical,” “A Christmas Carol” (2014, 2016), “Into the Woods” and “The Drowsy Chaperone.” He’s also performed in dramatic readings and will play the Wizard in a dinner-theater production of “Once Upon a Mattress” later this summer in Ridgefield (rclpctheater.com).