Review: JCC's 'August' worth the commitment

04:43 PM, Mar 11, 2013

August: Osage County will be at the Jewish Community Center through March 24. (STEVEN LEVINSON/Photo provided by JCC)/


Written By Leah Stacy

If you goWhat: August: Osage County, a JCC CenterStage production.
When: Various times through March 24.
Where: Jewish Community Center of Greater Rochester, 1200 Edgewood Ave.
Cost: $26 ($18 for students).
For tickets: (585) 461-2000 or go to JCCCenterstage.org.

Every family is dysfunctional.

Dysfunction is bound to happen when the ambitions, personalities and histories of a group of people are forced to collide in a social situation, and sharing the same genetic pool doesn’t change human nature.

To capture that dysfunction — the tensions, emotions and dialogue — it takes a truly talented observer and playwright. Someone who can craft individual characters and place them in a stage drama that pushes the comfort of both audience and actor, that opens closets filled with the dust of secret years and the cobwebs of cowardice. For generations past, that playwright was arguably Tennessee Williams.

For today’s generation, it’s Tracy Letts, a 47-year-old American playwright who hails from Oklahoma, the setting for his 2008 Tony and Pulitzer prize-winning play, August: Osage County.

Through March 24, CenterStage at the Jewish Community Center is the first Rochester area theater to debut the play, a dark comedy that follows the dysfunction of the Weston family in modern day Oklahoma.

When the famous poet and alcoholic (but usually reliable) Beverly Weston goes missing, his pill-addicted wife, Violet, and three middle-aged daughters rally at the Weston homestead in Pawhuska, Okla., to locate him. It’s been years since the whole family was together.

Oldest daughter Barbara and her estranged husband, Bill, fly in from Colorado with their misguided 14-year-old daughter, Jean. Middle daughter and confirmed bachelorette Ivy lives nearby, so she arrives with Violet’s overbearing sister, Mattie Fae Aiken, and her husband, Charles. Youngest daughter Karen and her fiancé, Steve, travel from sunny Miami. After spending several weeks together, the family discovers more than Beverly’s whereabouts.

The first thing that must be understood is the length of the show. August: Osage County runs well over three hours (with two brief intermissions), but it’s barely noticeable. The family’s struggles and situations are so gripping that when the lights rise on intermission, that time is spent wondering how Letts will ever reconcile everything before the show ends.

The second thing that must be understood is the language throughout the show. Letts isn’t shy about expletives, but it doesn’t seem overdone — in fact, it’s often a welcome release of the tension and offers comedic relief. Letts has a wonderful grasp on the reality of a family’s home when the public is no longer around, and that’s what August: Osage County should be.

Director Brian Coughlin expertly manages an impressive ensemble of amateur and professionally trained actors (and theater educators) who were plucked from a record-breaking number of audition attendees. The cast is so incredible, in fact, that they warrant a review all their own. It’s evident months of concentration, talent and hard work have gone into this production. Particularly remarkable is the physical traits developed by Denise Bartalo in the role of drugged-up Violet. Bartalo staggers around the set with such precision that it appears natural, but it’s something only an accomplished actor could achieve in addition to the dialogue and emotional rocking horse of Violet’s character.

The husband-and-wife spats between Mattie Fae (McKenzie Keenan) and Charlie (Peter J. Doyle) are peppered with comic relief credited to a wonderful stage presence and chemistry from the duo. Bickwheat portrays Johnna as quietly heroic, a constant force through the turbulent show.

But it’s Barbara (Kerry Young) who consumes the audience for most of the show. When her patriarchal father disappears, it’s up to the eldest daughter to hold her family together in two senses: her daughter, Jean (Meg Richardson), is smoking cigarettes and pot at 14, and her husband, Bill (Steven Marsocci), is cheating on her with one of his college students. It’s never clear if the show is more about Barbara than anyone else, or if Young is just that gripping in her role. She captures finely tuned desperation with grace, bringing the audience to audible gasps at several points in the performance.

After all the talkins through, people just go back to their own nonsense.”

When Violet Weston speaks these words near the end of the show, the Weston family’s situation seems dim. But with powerful shows like August: Osage County, Letts is starting conversations about family and dysfunction that extend far beyond the walls of a theater.