Matriarch Violet is a drug addict battling cancer, while her husband, erstwhile poet and educator Beverly, struggles with his love of the bottle. A few weeks after hiring Johnna, a young Cheyenne woman, to assist in running and managing the household, Beverly disappears. In response, Violet calls her three daughters back home to help her cope with the uncertain situation.
Ivy, who lives nearby, feels constantly put upon by her mother; Barbara has a volatile relationship with her mother and brings along her estranged husband and teenage daughter to serve as a buffer; and Karen, the most distant and outwardly refined of the three, shows up with her new fiancée, a man of questionable motives and decency. Violet's sister Maddie Fay, her husband, and son round out the tangled family tree.
As the show progresses, and secret after secret is revealed, a story of generational tragedy and bitter truths unfolds. Shades of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller are clearly present in this darkly twisted drama as the family is tangled in interwoven, and occasionally inappropriate, relationships. Harsh criticism and the ravages of addiction amplify the drama, and bonds that should be unconditional are tenuous at best. "August, Osage County" is difficult to watch at times, and a climatic moment of violence, from a completely unexpected source and for an absolutely justified cause, creates both a catalyst for the show's conclusion and a huge release of pent up emotion for the audience.
Nancy Lubowitz, as Violet, and Laura Megan Deveney, as daughter Barbara, anchor the show, and both turn in strong performances that reveal worldly experience and nuanced complexity in their characters. Lubowitz transforms from a slurring, incoherent and drug addled shell of a woman into a sharp-tongued, strong-willed dictator, desperate to hold on to what remains of her family and unwilling to admit to any personal responsibility for the situation at hand.
Barbara, perhaps the strength of the next generation, mirrors Violet in many ways, though without the drug addiction. Deveney expresses Barbara's anger, frustration and determination in equal parts. And, as she tries to take care of the situation with her mother and father, she finds herself drifting further and further away from her husband and daughter. It's a devastatingly sad performance. Emily Jones, whose quite, reserved characterization of Ivy, the loyal daughter blindsided by a secret that threatens to destroy her last best hope for happiness, counters Deveney with her own tragic longing.
Rounding out the cast, Bailey Blessing is spot on as Barbara's impetuous daughter, hiding her anger and disappointment in a false sophistication and putting a tough face on her confusion. Cara Atman is a calming, steady presence as Johnna, though I wanted to know more about her character and why she would continue to care for such a dysfunctional family. Wes Meinhold somehow manages to elicit sympathy as Barbara's soon to be ex-husband, his conflict is present on his face and the urge to run is visible at several key moments, while Andrew Kuhlman is slimy as Karen's cringe-inducing fiancée Steve, a thoroughly unlikeable and sleazy character. Rachel E. Young, Lori Gibson, Gerry Palmer, Nick Raghebi, and Connor McKinley complete the large ensemble.
"August, Osage County" is difficult to watch at times, and I imagine there were uncomfortable moments during rehearsals, but the themes have a universal resonance to them, even if the audience doesn't see their own family in the portrayals. I only wish the pacing and direction was more focused on delivering a tight, economical story. The show seems to wander aimlessly off track and several long scenes feel irrelevant to the main story. In fact, there are almost too many threads to follow, making for several tedious moments in an otherwise compelling performance.
August, Osage County runs through May 18, 2014 at Act Two Theatre in the Performing Arts Center at the St. Peters City Hall Cultural Arts Centre. For reservations or more information, visit www.act2theater.com.