There never was, nor never will be again, a play quite like Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County." For all the fire-breathing, balled-fist bellowing and insult-imbibing wrath conjured up in Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," it all melts down to merely hollow trumpeting compared to Letts' explosive masterpiece.
The horrors of the American family are dragged out from the damp air of the basement to fester in the open air of Letts' bitterly abrasive comedy, a deftly written drama that earned him both the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for Best Play in 2008. Splintered with acute insight and combustible laughs, his searing examination of the dynamics that make up the modern family is a slow burn, stretching out over three luxurious acts.
That elongated evening of theatre clocks in at a little less than four hours in Mark A. Rhea's scintillating production at the Keegan Theatre, the long-anticipated premiere for the Washington area. And as the Weston family secrets gracelessly unfurl, Rhea's cast leisurely ignites the fireworks, building a grand bonfire with Rena Cherry Brown as its blazing effigy.
"I'm just truth-telling. Some people get antagonized by the truth," chides Violet Weston, the vicious, pill-popping matriarch of a family blistered apart by years of her self-righteous torment. It's been years since her three daughters have assembled under the same roof, but when her "world class alcoholic" husband suddenly goes missing, Violet is forced to confront her demons before a family that firmly believes "dissipation is actually much worse than cataclysm." Stir in a little marital angst and unapologetic incest, and you have the makings of one memorable family reunion.
|'August: Osage County'|
|Where: Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW|
|When: Through Sept. 2|
|Info: $30 to $35; 703-892-0202; keegantheatre.com|
Letts' acerbic affair is set in rural Oklahoma, but may as well be any hot pocket of American civilization, as presented in Stefan Gibson's elaborate domestic setting. And just as her crooked paintings hang tenuously upon the wall, Brown's Violet is a slightly off-center vision, a slip of a woman who simultaneously slurs and strikes, her sanity always hanging in the balance. She is a hypnotic creature, this mother who eviscerates her offspring with merely a glance, and Brown delivers Violet's delicious malice with a scalding intensity, most often to Belen Pifel's resolute Ivy.
While the majority of Rhea's ensemble is equally compelling -- including Kevin Adams' thoughtful turn as the put-upon husband of Violet's sister -- it is through Susan Marie Rhea's painful portrayal of Barbara that we witness firsthand the quiet generational wars fought in living rooms and dining chambers all across the country. She is heart-wrenching as the favorite daughter caught in the crossfire of her mother's rage.
It's a horribly honest play, and in spite of such biting social commentary and terse wit, Letts taps into the blown vein running somewhere between who we are and who we think we are. Ultimately, we realize, it's always August in Osage County.