Tracy Letts's August: Osage County isn't the first Tony/Pulitzer Prize–winning play about a dysfunctional family to grace the Balagan Theater's stage this season—but unlike the disappointing Next to Normal, it is the first to clearly deserve those awards. August is one helluva play: a three-act, three-hour-plus, bitterly funny tragic comedy in the grand tradition of Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams.
And no, I'm not being hyperbolic. This play is going into the canon.
As the Westons descend on their parents'’ stifling, small-town Oklahoma home to comfort and confront their matriarch in the wake of their father's sudden disappearance, Letts slowly unravels the family's painful secrets through characters and dialogue that almost, but never quite, cross the line into caricature and melodrama. Letts deals with addiction, incest, racism (via a Cheyenne Indian housekeeper), suicide, and a degree of family viciousness that cannot be overstated, all the while maintaining an intelligent distance that allows humor and genuine pathos to breathe through what would, in the hands of clumsier playwrights, turn into an overheated and alienating lecture. It's an impressive balancing act. Letts dangles clichés for comedic and dramatic effect, then yanks them away just when you think you've figured everything out. These are familiar characters (the henpecked husband, the dutiful spinster daughter), outlined in the broad strokes TV-era audiences have been trained to expect, then colored in with surprising detail.
The result is a wrenching yet brutally funny dysfunctional-family mystery. For the lead actors, the rewards are some of the juiciest roles they'll ever play. And director Shawn Belyea's broadly talented cast makes the most of it.
As the soon-to-be-disappeared patriarch Beverly Weston, Charles Leggett opens the show with a drawling monologue that gently lures the audience into his family's drama. "My wife takes pills, and I drink," he flatly explains. "That's the bargain we've struck." It's an understated performance, but Leggett's quietude toys with audience expectations before his Technicolor family explodes onto the stage.
All 13 actors play their outsized characters with zeal, and it's almost unfair to single any one out for praise. But life isn't fair. Teri Lazzara shows tremendous range as the eldest daughter, Barbara, who gradually transforms from a controlled, urbane, barb-spewing Oklahoma escapee into the thing she fears most: Her mother.
But Shellie Shulkin as the downer- addicted, acid-tongued matriarch, Violet Weston, all but steals the show. During her first entrance, stumbling across the set and garbling her lines, Shulkin's performance might come off as over-the-top. But Letts has written an over-the-top role, and, like the playwright, Shulkin relentlessly lurches right up to that line without ever crossing it. Her Violet is both vicious and pathetic, slipping between a drug-induced haze and sadistic mockery. "I didn't say [women] don't grow more attractive," Violet explains to her three middle-aged daughters. "I said they get ugly." Letts reserves some the best lines for Violet—and from her daughters' perspective, some of the worst.
Shulkin's big performance comes off even bigger on Balagan's intimate stage at Erickson Theater Off Broadway, where the play's iconic three-story set is functionally compressed into a split-level abstract. You may not want to be sitting in the Westons' living room, but there you are.
It all makes for an impressive close to Balagan's ambitious season, and a fitting exit for Belyea as the company's artistic director. Balagan has earned a reputation for staging regional premieres of Broadway hits, and this production only enhances it. If I weren't getting these tickets for free, I might even buy a subscription to next season. And I'm cheap. So that's saying something.
August: Osage County is already an American classic—and its reputation will be cemented once the star-studded film version is released next November. So quick: Rush on over to Balagan and see this play, before Meryl Streep ruins the role of the pill- popping, zinger-flinging Violet Weston for all future actresses.