By Ruth Ross
Leo Tolstoy auspiciously began Anna Karenina by writing, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In his coarse, caustic, 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy, August, Osage County, Tracie Letts presents the latter on steroids. And the Chatham Community Players gives us an astonishing tour de force production that will take your breath away.
When alcoholic, once-famous poet Beverly Weston (left, played by Bruce Gandy) goes missing and is later found dead, his family—three very different sisters, along with one spouse, one teenage daughter and one fiancé; a sister-in-law, her husband and son; and a Native American caretaker—gather at his small home outside Pawhuska, Oklahoma, to settle his affairs and attend to the welfare of his drug-addled, cancer-stricken wife Violet. What ensues is a psychologically abusive free-for-all, complete with blatant manipulation, scathing insults, outright cruelty, physical confrontation, obscenities and the revelation of secrets that lay bare the family's tangled past and divisive present. Through it all, a tremendous amount of alcohol is consumed, numerous pills are popped and pot is smoked, further poisoning the already-toxic familial atmosphere. That this unfolds on the three-quarters-in-the-round playing space of the Chatham Playhouse's little black box theater means that the audience, instead of being viewers, become voyeurs, guiltily eavesdropping on these juicily scandalous events.
A vastly different experience from a large Broadway theater or a giant movie screen, this production gives us community theater—indeed, theater in general—at its very best. Once again, Jeffrey Fiorello demonstrates his superb directorial skills, moving the performers in this three-act play through the twists of plot and increasing dramatic tension to keep us on the edge of our seats wondering what could (not will) happen next. His cast includes CPP veterans as well as several talented newcomers—10 of whom work ensemble to form a credible family unit. And while each of them gets a "star turn" monologue (actually, a rant), the dramatic device never feels artificial or forced. (Above right, Judy Laganga, Liza Harris and Bill Schineller)
As Violet, Judy Laganga's astounding performance will set your teeth on edge; she's venal, conniving, dishonest and manipulative all at the same time. Even when she's not onstage, Laganga's presence can be felt. Liza Harris is equally as brilliant as her eldest daughter Barbara (left, center), who has not been home in decades and who is dealing with a husband who has left her for a much-younger woman and a rebellious teenage daughter. In the role of Bill, Bill Schineller is the quintessential long-suffering bystander in this familial food fight; it's no wonder he wants out, even if he is callous the nonexplanation he gives for leaving. And Lilly Baldassare's teenage Jean (below with Chris Zimmerman) conveys the right combination of naiveté and sexuality that gets her into trouble and drives her mother crazy.
As the two other Weston siblings, Sarah Pharaon as Ivy (above, left) and Sky Spiegel Monroe as the ditzy Karen (above, right) are two prime examples of the noxious environment they experienced out there on the Oklahoma prairie. For years, unwed Ivy has been caretaker for her parents; now that she has a boyfriend, she plans to escape with him to New York City. Karen, a serial bride, lives in Miami and has brought her fiancé (a slimy, smarmy Craig Zimmerman) with her to this debacle. Both Pharaon and Monroe shine in their roles and are a pleasure to watch.
Two old pros, Susan Speidel and Bob Mackasek bring verve and vitality to Mattie Fae Aiken, Violet's younger sister, and her husband Charlie. Speidel's biting criticism of her son Little Charles (portrayed very well by Gus Ibranyi as a slow-talking man child) gives her some of the funniest lines. Mackasek's Charlie is stolid and likable; when he finally explodes, we want to stand up and cheer. (Left, Ibrany and Speidel)
Rounding out the cast are Tracey Lynn Haskell as Cheyenne caretaker Johnna Monevata and Lewis Decker as Sheriff Deon Gilbeau. Haskell's Johnna impassively watches this dysfunctional family, finally stepping in to prevent a disaster with the swipe of a frying pan. Decker's Gilbeau is rather awkward and endearing as he breaks the news of Beverly's death and attempts to woo Barbara.
The set designed by Bob Lukasik and Roy Pancirov (above) fills the theater's back wall and rises to the rafters in three levels, even as it extends into the playing space, really giving us the feeling that we are in the Weston abode. Richard Hennessy's lighting is (forgive the pun) spot-on, highlighting the action and actors as they move from room to room, along with conveying the passage of time. Costume designer Beverly Wand has outdone herself in this production, attiring the actors in outfits that fit their characters' personae and situation. One thing to be thankful for is that there is no attempt to convey the steamy summer temperatures everyone complains about; despite Violet's oft-reported aversion to air conditioning (further enhancing the meltdown of her family), the Chatham Playhouse's cooling system was working quite well.
Until the 2009-2010 season, the Chatham Community Players could be counted on for polished productions of pretty standard community theater fare, but since their edgy, smart production of The Pillowman, they have continued to give us theater to think about. In that vein, they have inaugurated their 93rd season with a stunning accomplishment. August, Osage County is a must-see, even if you saw the film (not so critically acclaimed) or the Broadway production. I promise you the experience will thrill you and leave you in awe of what great writing and great acting can accomplish.
August, Osage County will be performed at the Chatham Playhouse, 23 North Passaic Ave., Chatham, through October 24. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.635.7363 or visit www.chathamplayers.org online. NOTE: Given the play’s length, evening performances begin at 7:30 PM.
Photos by Howard Fischer